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COVID-19 deaths soaring in Tennessee's more rural counties

More than half of Sevier County's COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the last month. Health leaders warn that trend may continue before it slows down.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn — When Clark King looks at how many people have died recently in Sevier County, it makes him sad. As of January 13, at least 99 people have died because of COVID-19.

He and his wife know at least five of them.

"That statistic to me is mind boggling," he said. "It's only 99 people unless one of those people was somebody you know or somebody in your family."

In Sevier County, roughly 1 in 1,000 people have died of COVID-19. That includes 29 people in the first two weeks of January.

Other East Tennessee counties have been reporting more and more deaths from the virus too.

Credit: WBIR

During a media briefing in October, Dr. Lisa Piercey said rural areas would see more hospitalizations and more deaths than metropolitan areas like Knox County.

"We are seeing much more penetration of this virus in our rural communities," she said. "Generally speaking, our rural communities have larger proportions of older and sicker or comorbid individuals."

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In Anderson County, the Tennessee Department of Health has reported 24 new deaths from COVID-19 in the first thirteen days of January. Once adjusted for population, that would be the equivalent of roughly 150 deaths in Knox County.

Other counties are seeing surges, too. Roane County has reported 20 deaths during the month of January so far; Blount and Cumberland have each reported 19.

Credit: WBIR Data Team

For the first time in weeks, current hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the East Tennessee region have dropped consistently. While health leaders caution it's too early to tell whether the trend will continue, it could be a start.

"We were seeing a few days of downward trends in hospitalizations, which is a very good sign," Knox County Health Department's Charity Menefee said. "I think we just need to give it a little bit more time to see if that trend is going to maintain which would be great, or if it's not."