Tennessee’s top health official said Wednesday the omicron variant is plateauing in the state’s cities – a hopeful sign of the current surge may be nearing its peak – while the virus continues to spread rapidly in rural counties.
Soon after, the Tennessee Department of Health released new virus data showing a decline of infections in Nashville and Memphis last week and slowing spread in the Chattanooga area. The virus continues to rise sharply in the Knoxville area.
Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey first announced the infection plateau during a briefing with state lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon, saying the virus was flattening and even declining in "essentially all" metropolitan areas. Less populated regions are expected to follow, she said.
“We are starting to plateau, and starting to drop off in our metro areas, so that is a good sign,” Piercey said. “Our rural areas aren’t quite there yet. But historically speaking, whenever we've seen these patterns with case trends, the rural areas generally follow in a week or two, sometimes three weeks later.”
A plateauing virus would be a welcome but not unexpected development. Virus experts both in Tennessee and beyond predicted the omicron wave would end faster than prior surges because the virus is so incredibly transmissible that it will run out of people to infect. An often-cited virus model from the University of Washington has estimated the nationwide surge quietly peaked earlier this month. And in places where omicron arrived earlier, like the United Kingdom and New York City, it has begun to recede.
Piercey’s statements on Wednesday are the first by a state leader about the virus plateauing in Tennessee. The underlying data on which she based her statements was not made public until after her presentation because the health department transitioned earlier this month from publishing virus data every weekday to only once a week.
Once released, the updated data revealed positive signs of a declining virus in some portions of the state. The data however, are based only on the infections the health department is aware of, which Piercey herself admitted is a “significant undercount.”
Many if not most at-home tests are never reported to state officials and therefore not reflected the state’s coronavirus data. Additionally, many Tennesseans have likely caught the virus but never been tested due to long lines and scarce supplies.
Beyond these caveats, the new data showed progress. Epidemiological curves, updated through last week, demonstrated a small decline in infections in the state's two biggest cities.
Memphis dropped from a weekly average of about 2,450 infections per day on Jan. 7 to about 2,100 infections per day on Jan. 15. Nashville fell from about 1,700 to about 1,500 in the same time period. In the suburban counties around Nashville, infections were still rising but not as quickly as they have in the first half of January.
In Chattanooga, infection levels have been steady for a four-day span from Jan. 11 to Jan. 15.
Despite positive developments in these cities, the virus is still racing across the rest of Tennessee, the data showed. The state averaged 16,226 new infections per day last week and a 41% positivity rate. Both statistics are higher than they've ever been.
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: COVID in Tennessee: Omicron infections dropping in Nashville, Memphis