Johnson City health expert: Vaccine hesitancy causing concern as COVID-19 delta variant spreads


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the COVID-19 positivity rate and hospitalizations rise, health experts warn the delta variant is the culprit. One healthcare leader is concerned that vaccine hesitancy is putting the population at risk.

Ballad Health Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels told News Channel 11 that the hospital system had 20 COVID-19 patients on July 5. He said that number rose to 44 on Tuesday.

“I think it’s safe to say, based on the information that we have on the delta variant, that the delta variant is here and spreading in our community,” Runnels said. “Hospitalizations remain a major concern, both for patients and for the hospital system as well, and we continue to promote vaccines as the best way to prevent that. What we’re seeing in our data is that the vast majority of people who are hospitalized in the spring and summer have been unvaccinated individuals or partially vaccinated.”

He said the data gathered by local health experts indicate that the delta variant may be a bigger cause for concern than anticipated, especially to those who remain unvaccinated.

“All the vaccines that are currently available may be less effective at preventing some level of infection, than the original Wuhan virus that was present in states. However, it seems to be very effective at preventing – the vaccines – seem to be very effective at preventing hospitalizations, and deaths. We continue to see about 95% of our hospitalizations and about 95% of our deaths are people that are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated which suggests that the vaccines are still very effective at preventing hospitalizations and death, even if less effective at preventing some level of infection,” he said.

Though some data showed that the Tri-Cities region saw a rise in COVID-19 vaccines last week, Runnels said Ballad Health has not seen a rise in people seeking the shot.

He said, though, that he encourages folks to get the vaccine. Runnels said data shows those who are fully vaccinated and contract COVID-19, are less infectious to others.

“All the evidence regarding vaccination, and we’ve done well over 300,000 vaccinations in our region between the various entities that are providing vaccine, it’s proven to be very safe and very effective, and it’s a good way, the best way to protect yourself from serious illness and protect those around you from becoming very ill COVID-19. So I think as a physician and as a leader in the healthcare system that is the most important thing that I can stress to those who are listening is the safe, effective, availability of vaccines and what that means to them and the people around them,” he said.

Runnels added that he hopes the region’s less vaccinated areas heed the warning.

“I think there’s still a growth in vaccines which is good and there are certain counties that are approaching that 50% mark but there’s just a lot of variation across our region in many regions that have a lower vaccination level that I’m concerned for those patients in those communities,” he said.

One local man who did heed the warning is Mitchell Hancock, who works as a missionary in Spain for all except the summer months.

“I’m here for the summer since students aren’t around and I got the vaccine as soon as I could once I got back because it’s just not available yet to my age group in Spain,” Hancock explained.

He said he did have friends in their 20’s – the same age as him – who received their shots but only under very specific circumstances.

“One of them volunteers with the Red Cross, one of them is a teacher, and so they got it but one of them even got the AstraZeneca vaccine which has now been, like they’ve taken it back like they’re not giving that to anyone else now. But I’m not exactly sure when my age group, like when it’ll be our turn in Spain, but I figured, while I’m here I might as well get it done,” he explained.

He said he works closely with people on college campuses in Salamanca, Spain, so getting the vaccine was important to him.

“One of the hard things of ministry this past year is that we were limited to like only certain small groups or like only walking outside. I never hesitated – I don’t love shots or vaccines, but I figured it was for the greater good, and especially in a job like mine where I’m with people every day like my job is to be in conversations and be in community with people, so I feel like that’s even more important,” he said.

Hancock said that other countries don’t have vaccines as easily available as in America, so he urges anyone who is eligible to go get the shot.

“If you can – get vaccinated. I understand there’s plenty of people that for health reasons or whatever, can’t, but I do think it’s the right thing to do, I think. I mean, if we get vaccines, less people will die. Like, I’m not much of a scientist but if less people are going to die because of a simple choice that I can make, I feel like it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

He said besides grogginess, he did not have any adverse side effects after receiving his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a Walgreens pharmacy in Johnson City.

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