Rapid and Relentless

Rapid and Relentless

The fast-spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant threatens to overwhelm area hospitals and has yet to show signs of slowing down.

by scott barker • January 27, 2022

COVID-19 cases have soared to record levels, deaths are rising and hospital emergency departments are overwhelmed as the Omicron variant burns through Knox County.

Knox County recorded 6,688 new COVID-19 cases last week, including a single-day record of 1,423 new infections.

The Knox County Health Department’s weekly data report, outlining the status of the pandemic as of last Saturday, shows that the surge continues to swell. All eight of the days throughout the entire pandemic with more than 1,000 new cases have been recorded this month, with Jan. 20 setting the record of 1,423 new infections.

Hospitalizations continue to rise, though they have yet to reach the levels of previous surges. Still, the situation is so dire that six regional hospital systems — Blount Memorial Hospital, Covenant Health, Sweetwater Hospital Association, Tennova Healthcare and University of Tennessee Medical Center — issued a warning and a plea to East Tennesseans on Wednesday. 

“As we prepare to face a third year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, our communities are still in an emergency,” the hospitals said in a joint statement. “Health care systems continue to be under unprecedented strain. We remain committed to delivering the medical services needed by our communities, but we need your help.”

Regional hospitalizations have more than doubled since New Year’s Day, to 556 on Jan. 22. Updated figures show COVID-19 hospitalizations at UT Medical Center, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and Parkwest Medical Center have increased more than 20 percent since then.

“The Omicron variant is racing through East Tennessee with lightning speed, spreading easily from person to person, increasing infections and hospitalizations,” the hospitals’ statement said. 

Knox County recorded 6,688 new cases last week, an average of 955 a day. That’s up from 5,893 new cases the previous week. On Saturday, there were 14,630 active cases — one in 33 county residents. The county’s total number of cases during the pandemic has reached 108,856 patients.

At the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, there were 37 new cases on Thursday. Of the 164 active cases, 107 were students and 57 were employees. Those numbers have increased now that students are back on campus for the spring semester. 

“We are still seeing high volumes of new cases, so please continue taking precautions to keep yourself and those around you healthy,” Kelsey Wilson, division director of communications for the Health Department, said in a statement. “If you aren't feeling well, stay home and don't risk spreading an illness to others.” 

The wave that’s been pounding individuals and families is hitting the public sphere as well. The city-county Sports Authority canceled its meeting on Tuesday because of COVID-19 cases among members and/or staff. Knoxville City Councilwoman Seema Singh missed Tuesday’s meeting with what Mayor Indya Kincannon described as a mild case. Knox County Schools shut down all last week and moved Austin-East Magnet High School to remote instruction this week because of the number of cases among staff.

Knox County reported 29 deaths for last week, nearly double the number who died from COVID-19 complications the week before, and another 10 who died before January were added to the county’s total as part of an ongoing state audit. The death toll over the 22-month pandemic has reached 1,130.

Public health officials have repeatedly said that vaccinations and boosters, along with following the five core actions — wearing masks, maintaining distance from others, cleaning surfaces, washing hands and staying home when sick — offer the best protection against all variants of COVID-19.

Despite consistent news reports that the Omicron variant is easily transmissible, Knox County residents haven’t been rushing out to get vaccinated in greater numbers than before. Converting the vaccination percentages reported by the Health Departments into numbers shows an average of about 1,425 residents per week have gotten at least a first dose since Omicon arrived.

When the first case of an Omicron variant infection was confirmed in Knox County on Dec. 16, 61.18 percent of residents — 293,034 people — had at least initiated a vaccine series. As of last Saturday, that number had grown by just 7,328, to 300,362.

During the week between Dec. 28, when the Omicron wave picked up steam, and Jan. 3, about 1,269 Knox County residents started a vaccine series. Last week, even after the extent of the Omicron wave became apparent, only 527 people initiated a series.

Most hospital inpatients are unvaccinated, as are the vast majority of patients in intensive care units — 90 percent at Parkwest. As of last Friday, four out of 10 county residents had not started a vaccination cycle.

In addition to the surge in COVID-19 cases, the hospitals reported that large numbers of patients with respiratory illnesses such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), pneumonia, and post-COVID-19 complications, in addition to heart attacks, strokes and other emergency conditions are seeking treatment. 

“Our emergency departments are overflowing with these cases and other medical emergencies, leading to longer-than-usual wait times as we work to deliver care to all who are counting on us,” the statement reads.

Exacerbating the problem is employee absenteeism because of illness, and the hospitals noted that healthcare workers aren’t immune to viruses. They said they continue to adapt to changing circumstances and appealed to the public for help.

“If you are asymptomatic or experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms, visit a community testing location prior to seeking care at the emergency department,” the hospitals said.

Still, they advised that people go in for regular screenings or appointments, and to seek emergency treatment immediately for a serious injury or life-threatening illness or condition. 

“As they have done at heroic levels since the beginning of the pandemic, our teams are continuing to work diligently and selflessly to care for our communities,” the hospitals said. “We are here for you when you need us. We ask for your patience and kindness to our health care workers and to one another during these challenging times.”