UPDATE: Rural Southwest Virginia surge of new cases continues


(WJHL)- Digital Reporter Jessica Fuller breaks down COVID-19 data every day on our sister-station WJHL’s website at WJHL.com and social media.

This story has been updated October 28, 2020.

New cases continued to surge in hard-hit Lee and Scott counties of Southwest Virginia Tuesday and Wednesday, data from the Virginia Department of Health show.

Despite populations of just 23,423 and 21,566, the counties are reporting some of the region’s highest daily new case counts. The spike drew a news release from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) late last week imploring residents to practice mask-wearing, good hand hygiene and social distancing.

News Channel 11 reached out early Tuesday to public health officials at the state and region, requesting an interview to discuss the situation, and to receive more specific data information. No response had been provided as of Wednesday morning.

Wednesday’s report from VDH drove both counties’ seven-day average new cases per 100,000 higher than Tuesday.

Scott County reached a mark of 60.94 — almost double the eight-county Southwest Virginia average and almost five times the statewide average. Lee County’s rate rose slightly to 50.62 new daily cases per 100,000.

Southwest Virginia’s regionwide rate for the eight counties measured by News Channel 11 is 32.2 new daily cases per 100,000 (seven-day average).

Statewide, Virginia has the nation’s 10th-lowest rate of spread, 12.8, while Tennessee’s rate of 37.4 is the nation’s 12th highest.

Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties, like Southwest Virginia, have a rate exceeding the state average. It’s 50.09, which is 34 percent higher than the state average.

The trend of new COVID-19 hospitalizations stayed at its highest level since late August Tuesday.

The 14-day average for new daily hospitalizations is 10.79. That rate has increased by 66 percent in the past two weeks.

Ballad Health reported Tuesday it had 169 hospitalized COVID patients — an all-time high for the system. Of those, 33 were in intensive care and 15 were on ventilators, increases of five ICU patients and two ventilator patients from Monday.

A low number of tests read in Tennessee decreased the daily raw number of new cases to 185, its lowest count since Oct. 16.

Despite that, the 14-day and seven-day rolling averages of new daily cases barely moved. The 14-day average rose from 285.71 to 288.93 and the seven-day average dropped from 331.14 to 330.43.

Weighted for population, community spread (new daily cases per 100,000 population) across the 15-county two-state region is 38.29 (14-day) and 43.79 (seven day). The 14-day rolling average has increased from 14.85 to 38.29 in the last month — a 158 percent jump.

A surge in new cases that began in late September has resulted in numerous school schedule changes, outbreaks and — just Friday — an announcement by Ballad Health that 22 staff and six patients had tested positive in a cluster of cases.

Northeast Tennessee

Northeast Tennessee’s surge in cases has had a remarkable impact on the number of “active cases” in the region since Oct. 1, as they have nearly tripled during that period. The greater the trend of new cases, the higher the number of active cases will rise.

That’s because those counted as recovered reflect the community spread rate of two or more weeks prior. So on Oct. 1, when the community spread rate had been significantly lower for several weeks, the region had 817 active cases.

Tuesday, even after a low case count due to low testing, that figure stood at 2,420, roughly triple the count when the month began.

Several Northeast Tennessee counties continue to rank very high in the percentage of COVID tests resulting in a positive diagnosis.

Health experts say such high positivity rates indicate unchecked community spread.

Sullivan County’s 14-day average daily positivity rate ticked down slightly Tuesday, to 17.72%, but that still left the county ninth-highest among Tennessee’s 95 counties and by far the highest rate among urban counties.

Washington County’s 14-day rate moved up and is now above 14.47%. That’s 30th in the state, and Washington and Sullivan have the two highest positivity rates among counties with over 100,000 population.

The region continues to experience a death rate lower than the totals it reached after the summer case surge, but it is rising slowly. The 14-day average of new daily COVID deaths has been between 2.00 and 2.50 the past seven days.

That rate was above 3.00 for 11 straight days starting Sept. 11 and peaked at 4.57 Sept. 15. That was five weeks after the 14-day rate of new daily cases peaked Aug. 8.

The summer peak of new daily cases (14-day average) was 143. Tuesday, it was 222. If the mortality rate is similar to what it was from the summer surge of cases, the 14-day average daily death rate around the first of December could be in the neighborhood of six or seven.

Greene, Sullivan and Washington counties each recorded two deaths Tuesday. Official records now show 224 Northeast Tennesseans have died from COVID-19 since the first death was recorded April 1 in Greene County.

Southwest Virginia

Some of Southwest Virginia’s most rural counties continued to help keep community spread rates near their highest levels yet on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wise County saw 31 new cases over the two days, Lee County 23 and Scott County 40.

The region reported 99 new cases Wednesday, which but for Saturday’s record of 104, would have been a single-day high for the pandemic.

The VDH news release Friday referencing a surge in Lee, Scott and Wise counties, within the Lenowisco Health District, included this statement from District Director Dr. Sue Cantrell.

“We can still gather together with friends and family, socialize, exercise, worship and celebrate the holidays, if we commit to doing so safely,” Cantrell said. “It’s simple and easy to protect yourself, your loved ones and everyone around you.”

Because of limitations with the data provided by the Virginia Department of Health, it’s not possible to report recoveries, active cases or the percent positivity rates in southwest Virginia counties.

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