NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey provided an update on the state’s vaccination efforts amid the Delta variant surge.
During Friday’s update, Piercey echoed the recent comments of CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, calling this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated."
Piercey said almost all cases of severe illness – resulting in hospitalization or death – are among the unvaccinated. About 97% of all hospitalizations and 98%+ of deaths are among the unvaccinated.
What’s a breakthrough case? An infection that occurs after you’ve been fully vaccinated.
“Let’s keep this in perspective here: We never expected this vaccine to be 100% effective. We were shooting for or expecting kind of 92 to 95% effectiveness. We’re actually seeing much, much higher than that here, but there are some [breakthrough] cases,” said Piercey.
Piercey said the state has reported about 1,000 breakthrough cases among those who are fully vaccinated. Of those, there have been 195 hospitalizations and 27 deaths.
She said almost a quarter of breakthrough cases are asymptomatic. Those who become more seriously ill are more likely to be immunocompromised. Half of the state’s breakthrough cases have been in those age 60 and older.
Piercey said the bottom line is that the vaccine is the number one way to protect yourself against COVID.
THE DELTA VARIANT IN TENNESSEE
Piercey said health officials believe that, like the rest of the country, the Delta variant is now the dominant variant in Tennessee – and is comparable with the national average of those cases.
“I suspect [the Delta variant] is now approaching that the national penetration of that variant, which is close to 80%,” she said. “I expect the majority of infections here in Tennessee are the Delta variant.”
Piercey said the Delta variant particularly has a stronghold in the Memphis and Shelby County areas, which she said isn’t surprising given the outbreaks in Arkansas and Missouri.
She said health officials know the Delta variant is more contagious, but it’s still unclear at this point if it’s more virulent.
"Initially, we thought maybe it did [make people sicker], now we're thinking maybe not so much, but we do know it is much more transmissible or contagious," she said.
A 'NOTICEABLE UPTICK' IN NUMBERS
Tennessee has seen a 200%+ increase in cases since July 1, and the numbers have only gone up in the last seven days. The state's positivity rate is now approaching 10%, with 10 counties reporting a positivity rate of 15% or more. Piercey said a few are even seeing a positivity rate of 20+%.
However, Piercey said for context, the state’s numbers are not as high as they were in November, December, or January, but they are seeing a “noticeable uptick,” with no signs of slowing.
As the number of new cases grows, so too will hospitalizations across the state. Piercey said hospitalizations were around 200 but have now grown to well over 500 statewide. There’s been no uptick in deaths yet, but Piercey said that will likely come in the next few weeks.
Piercey also mentioned last week's firing of the state's top vaccine official, saying she knew there was "significant interest in some recent personnel decisions." She said those details are publicly available and would not comment on the specifics of the matter.
She also mentioned the Mature Minor Doctrine and said the department's pause of vaccine outreach was about taking the time to look at their communication and marketing plan, not about halting vaccination efforts.
"The reason that we paused is because we wanted to leave no room for interpretation about where we are shooting, and we are shooting to get the message to parents," she said. There was a perception we were marketing to children and that totally was against our view about the importance of parental authority."
She said none of the outreach was permanently halted, and many programs that were put on pause have resumed. Piercey said the department took down 11 social media posts that depicted a child without a parent, and those posts will have references to parents going forward.
Watch the full update from the Tennessee Department of Health below:
On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee held media availability and defended his administration’s firing of vaccination chief Dr. Michelle Fiscus and the rollback of outreach for childhood vaccines. Fiscus has repeatedly said she was terminated to appease some GOP lawmakers who were outraged over state outreach for COVID-19 vaccinations to minors.
Lee sidestepped direct questions on why Fiscus was fired, saying Piercey never disclosed those reasons to him. The governor also deflected when asked outright if he bears some of the responsibility for the state's low vaccination rate.
He encouraged Tennesseans to get vaccinated, calling it the "most effective tool" to manage COVID-19. He also encouraged residents to talk to their doctors or clergy if they have vaccine hesitancy.
COVID-19 IN TENNESSEE
Tennessee has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country.
Piercey said in June that demand for the vaccine in Tennessee was so low, the state is not accepting its full allotment of vaccine doses.