COVID hospitalizations have doubled in Tennessee since the Fourth of July — from 195 to 408. It’s a manageable number — given hospitals cared for more than 3,300 COVID patients at one point in January — but a worrying trend in a state with less than 40% of residents fully vaccinated.
The Tennessee Department of Health says 97% of the new COVID cases are among people who had not been vaccinated. And for most of those who get sick after vaccination, like Beth Downey of Nashville did this month, they almost certainly won’t need to be hospitalized. She says her symptoms were mild enough to pass for allergies.
“Due to traveling to see family, I thought just to be safe, go get a COVID test. And lo and behold, it was positive,” she says.
Her dry cough started July Fourth weekend. But none of the people she celebrated with got sick. Most, she says, were vaccinated.
“I’m very fortunately it was not anything very serious,” Downey says.
Metro health officials in Nashville say even with 50% of residents vaccinated, COVID doesn’t seem to be spreading as quickly. Clusters of cases are much smaller, even with very few people wearing masks. At a recent Davidson County wedding, three attendees got sick.
“A mask-less wedding is a really high risk activity. So the fact that there were only three cases, I think, is a pretty good thing, especially when you’re talking about a room of 150 people,” says epidemiologist Leslie Waller of the Metro Public Health Department.
‘It’s not a very comfortable situation’
The city’s health department is a long way from reimposing restrictions or mask requirements, but Waller says she and others in her office are wearing their masks again in public. They spent Monday testing 700 residents at the Nashville Rescue Mission after a handful of small outbreaks.
She says it’s hard to imagine the kind of community spread Tennessee had in December and January. But it’s also more difficult to control spread through contact now because people have resumed normal life — whether vaccinated or not.
“It’s not a very comfortable situation for any of us to be in,” Waller says. “My best educated guess is that we will not see those same levels of numbers, but of course, I’m not the one dictating what this virus does.”
Statewide, Tennessee hospitals should be able to handle the current load of COVID patients (updated daily here). But with a majority of residents still unvaccinated, state health officials are also gearing back up — publishing more frequent status reports on COVID cases and the delta variant, which is responsible for spikes in neighboring Arkansas and Missouri.
Shelby County, on the Arkansas state line, has already seen the state’s biggest jump in new cases and highest prevalence of the delta variant. Among the state’s urban counties, it also has the lowest vaccination rate.