County vaccinations outpace state

Matthew Van Epps, Office of Gov. Bill Lee deputy chief operating officer, speaks to local leaders Thursday before turning the presentation over to Dr. John Dunn, deputy state epidemiologist.

Various local leaders gathered Thursday at the Loudon County 911 center to get an update on the COVID-19 pandemic and give insight on how the county achieved a high vaccine rate.

Dr. John Dunn, a deputy state epidemiologist, and Matthew Van Epps, Office of Gov. Bill Lee deputy chief operating officer, were present to open dialogue with health experts, educators and county and city officials.

Dunn gave an overview on how the pandemic has impacted Tennessee.

“The governor sees the work that you all are doing and it’s phenomenal and we really appreciate that,” Van Epps said. “... As part of the unified command group, we have traveled across the state and met with different counties and county leadership at different phases of the pandemic. The message has been a little bit different. It’s coming out to talk and learn and understand and share some information from the state’s side, but what makes this a little different is (your all’s) vaccination rate is really high — it’s one of the best of the state. We want to learn from that and we want to take that back.”

As of Thursday, the county vaccination rate is fourth in the state at 58.6%, which is just behind Meigs, Williamson and Madison counties at 61.4%, 60% and 59.6%, respectively. The lowest rate was Moore County, which is about 90 miles west of Chattanooga, at 20.9%.

Statewide numbers show 49.4% have received at least one dose, whereas the national rate is 61.7%, Dunn said. Tennessee’s fully immunized comprise 41.7% compared to the 52.4% national average.

Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw believes emphasizing the death rate between vaccinated and unvaccinated could make a difference in driving immunization numbers up.

“I’ve still got friends that haven’t and I’m not going to mandate it in the county, never would. I think that’s a personal choice and personal freedom, but I think from a standpoint of — people are still scared of it,” Bradshaw said. “I’ll be honest, me sitting there, yeah, I was nervous as well because I’m not a big vaccine person period. ... But I think getting that message out would be incredible as far as helping get our numbers back up.”

Of the active COVID-19 cases, Dunn said 95.1% are from the delta variant.

“The protection that is provided by the vaccine is very apparent,” Dunn said. “Some of these numbers may change a little bit when they redo these analyses with the delta variant, but the story’s going to be the same ... it’s dramatically different from the vaccinated and unvaccinated population. ... Even more profound you look at hospitalization and death, which ultimately you want to keep people from getting hospitalized and keep them from dying from COVID, so the vaccine is a 25-fold reduction in terms of hospitalization rate and death rate for those that are vaccinated.”

Since Aug. 1, COVID-19 cases in Tennessee have increased 206%. Case have risen 13% in the last week, which is down from the prior two weeks of about 30%-40%, Dunn said.

“I think the glass-half-full side of me wants to say, ‘Maybe the increase is slowing a little bit,’ but nevertheless it’s still an increase,” he said. “We’re still seeing cases go up. I think we still really need to be vigilant and the news is not good in terms of we’re seeing COVID rates and disease.”

The first 30 days of August included 2,094 hospitalizations, which is double the largest monthly increase, Dunn said. Of floor beds, 27.5% are being used for COVID-19 patients. Statewide there have been 937 people in ICU and 645 people on ventilation, Dunn said, emphasizing the numbers are constantly changing.

“I think it speaks to how sick these people are because of the ICU and the ventilators,” Travis Estes, Priority Ambulance Emergency Medical Services director, said. “We’ve seen a lot of patients with the original version when the acuity of sickness wasn’t nearly as what it is now. I mean every day we are intubating or CPAPPing patients where we did not have to do that in the beginning of this.”

As of the week of Aug. 22, ages 0-12 comprised 38.5% overall active cases in Tennessee, Dunn said.

Seventy-nine children have been hospitalized, which is higher than the winter peak of 43.

Jeffrey Feike, Fort Loudoun Medical Center president and CEO, said health officials need to keep in mind respiratory syncytial virus and flu. He worries more sick children ages 0-12 could cause serious problems.

“You could really block out those pediatric beds, and when that happens, the children wind up in the emergency room with all the other hospitals and the bulk of those hospitals do not have the skillsets to take care of children,” Feike said. “Typically what happens if a child presents at Parkwest or Regional or UT, wherever it is, they get transferred to Children’s Hospital if they’re in really, really bad shape. If you block that access, then that stabilized ship mentality doesn’t exist, it’s stabilize and keep.”

He said FLMC is preparing for the worst.

“We’re training and teaching all of our nurses about pediatric issues,” Feike said to Dunn. “We’re going through our respiratory therapists as well, it’s different ventilator settings, you could damage the lungs, it’s a whole set of things. One of the things that’s important to us is that for them to take the chains off of us and let us do our job. Let us focus on those areas that we have to maneuver because we may be up to bat, and, if we are, it could be pretty serious.”

Dunn emphasized the “Swiss cheese” method to fight COVID, which recognizes no single intervention is perfect at preventing spread, but a combination of wearing masks, getting vaccinated, hand washing and not touching your face could go a long way.

As of Tuesday morning, Loudon County had 514 active cases of COVID-19.