NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — As the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads and sends Tennesseans home from work and school, a local epidemiologist warns it will take the Volunteer State longer to recover from the latest variant than other states due to Tennessee's low vaccination rate.
The Tennessee Department of Health reported Monday only 51.8% of the population is fully vaccinated.
"I hear anecdotally from physicians, about patients who are in the hospital and they're young, and they're healthy, and they're unvaccinated," said Dr. Loren Lipworth, an epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "I don't ever hear about people who are vaccinated or boosted and in the hospital right now with omicron. Other than those who have you know, immune-compromising conditions or serious underlying health conditions."
Between Jan. 9 and 15, at least 293 individuals were hospitalized at a Vanderbilt hospital with more than 70% of the sick who were unvaccinated. These were numbers that grew from the week before.
"It is so highly transmissible and situations where in the past, you might have been able to go to the post office or go to the grocery store, and maybe not encounter anybody with COVID. Those days have really changed," Lipworth said. "Now, when you're out in the community, I think Davidson reported last week that one in 35 Davidson County residents has COVID. So if you think about the places you go, the likelihood that you're going to encounter active COVID infection is very, very high."
Dr. Lipworth explained the number of cases in January surpassed all other months except the start of the pandemic, which has her concerned about health care systems.
"Although the overall severity of this new variant might potentially end up being less severe than others, the severity is not that different in people who are unvaccinated. And so when we have a huge proportion of our state that is unvaccinated that really can be burdensome for the health of the community, but also for the hospitals," she said.
"In Tennessee we have counties that vary from Davidson County, which is, you know, in the 60s or so percent vaccinated to some rural counties that are 30 to 40%. And so that leaves a really huge proportion of their population susceptible to omicron," Lipworth said. "We're all susceptible to omicron infection right now, as we see, but really susceptible to severe disease. And overburdening of the health care system."
She said Tennessee's lack or daily reporting causes challenges for epidemiologists like herself. However, she explained she and her colleagues are able to look at other states who report more regularly, adjust the vaccination rate and decipher some predictions for Tennessee.
"The good news is that it seems that omicron is peaking in places that are a couple of weeks ahead of us," Lipworth said. "So my hope is that we're gonna see the same pattern here. Again, early cautious interpretation, but hopefully we will see that here."