Trend, blip or reporting issue? New COVID vaccinations rose 43 percent last week in Northeast Tennessee

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New COVID vaccinations in Northeast Tennessee saw their biggest recorded jump in weeks last week according to Tennessee Department of Health data. But a local public health official said their internal numbers aren’t as encouraging.

Health official urges caution in reading too much into one week’s numbers

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A significantly higher number of Northeast Tennesseans reportedly got their first COVID vaccine dose last week compared to the two prior weeks, but one area health official is interpreting the numbers with a healthy dose of caution.

“We haven’t really seen a significant uptake in our vaccines for the month of July,” Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Dr. Gary Mayes said. “All population bands are relatively flat.”

Mayes did say it’s possible more people have begun accessing vaccinations at community partners — pharmacies, doctors’ offices and the like — while public health numbers have stayed stagnant.

Data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) show 2,120 people got their first jab across News Channel 11’s seven-county Northeast Tennessee viewing area from July 10 through July 16.

That marked a 43 percent increase from the July 3-9 period’s total of 1,476. It was 26 percent higher than the week of June 26 to July 2.

The latest numbers come following a national report Friday by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) showing that some people have moved off the fence and gotten vaccinated. That includes almost a quarter of people who told KFF in January they would either “definitely not” get vaccinated or only get a shot if required.

Mayes said Monday that if a TDH-reported increase from 399 Sullivan County vaccinations July 3-9 to 623 last week is indeed accurate, vaccinations directly from the health department didn’t play much of a role if any.

“I have a high degree of confidence in our numbers,” he said.

But he said about half of vaccines currently are being administered by community partners. If uptake there is jumping that could account for the reported increase.

“Our strategy now is to make it convenient to as many people as possible, and our community providers such as our pharmacies, our doctors offices and our health care system are doing just that,” he said.

While a big improvement from the prior two weeks, last week’s total was still the third-lowest reported. Weekly averages the first four weeks of June were about 2,700.

Tennessee total jumped even more

Vaccination numbers get reported in close to real time, Mayes said. But he cautioned the big increase on paper could have a less encouraging explanation, such as numbers from a previous week being reported late.

The previous week included the Fourth of July holiday, for one thing — although that wouldn’t have impacted the week that ended July 2.

And a look at Tennessee’s statewide comparisons shows an even larger bump across the state. The weekly total more than doubled the week ending July 16, to 38,120 from 18,761 the prior week.

Mayes didn’t have great news to report on results of the department’s own “strike team” efforts to try and lift vaccination uptake. That public health-centered approach has focused on making vaccine available at large community events and employers.

“We’ve gone to work sites, manufacturing sites, community events to make vaccine as convenient as possible and we haven’t seen a lot of interest and uptake at these sites,” Mayes said.

Study: Family, friends and personal doctors main influences for former fence sitters who’ve gotten vaccine

The latest from KFF’s ongoing “COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor” research project show almost a quarter (24 percent) of adults who told KFF in January they would only get vaccinated if required or would “definitely not” get vaccinated have now gotten at least one vaccine dose.

Of those who were in the “wait and see” camp in January, 54 percent have gotten at least one dose.

But only an additional 9 percent of the January hard liners say they now want to wait and see, along with 25 percent of those who said in January they wanted to wait and see.

KFF reported that of those who were hesitant and decided to get vaccinated, half said they heard or learned something persuasive. And 36 percent said they spoke with someone who persuaded them, with family members accounting for 17 percent and health care providers 10 percent.

Mayes said the movement, however small, was encouraging.

“I think it’s prudent for those that are concerned about the side effects of the vaccine or concerned about the vaccine in and of itself to seek information from those they respect, such as their family doctor a pharmacist or a health care provider and ask them whether they should or shouldn’t be vaccinated,” Mayes said.

He said the team at the department “won’t be deterred” from what he called its mission: making the vaccine as easily and frequently available within the community as possible “so that anyone who wants it can get it.”

But he said he “totally respects” people’s individual decisions.

“It is up to individuals to make a choice whether they want to be vaccinated or not based on their own risk analysis, their own risk assessment of vaccine versus disease.”

All his team can do, Mayes said, was give accurate information and make the vaccine available.

“No question we’d like to see more and more folks immunized to help minimize the scourge of COVID 19,” he said.

“Our cases in Sullivan County are trending up but bear in mind they’re very low numbers at this point. So any change in case numbers at this low level is going to change percentages.”

But Mayes said even at the low numbers, the trend is concerning. Sullivan’s positivity rate – the 7-day percentage of total COVID tests that are positive – has jumped from below 3 percent just a couple weeks ago 9.6 percent now.

“We’ve seen this play out before.”

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