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Putting the recent rise of new COVID-19 cases into perspective

Cases are rising again for the first time in months, but the Knox County Health Department said the numbers show we are still doing better than a year ago.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Right now, COVID-19 cases in our area and across Tennessee are starting to go up again for the first time in months.

The Knox County Health Department and Tennessee Department of Health are both reporting an increase in new cases starting in the past two weeks or so. The state at large, in particular, is seeing a noticeable rise, but it's important to put this rise in perspective. 

Credit: WBIR

The chart above shows the number of new cases across all of Tennessee since the start of the global pandemic in March 2020.

On the far right, you can see a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases this July. TDH has seen new cases begin to climb again across the state -- particularly in the rural counties where COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy is more widespread. 

In June 2021, Tennessee averaged around 200 new cases daily -- with a few days seeing increases only in the double digits. Now in mid-July, the state is seeing days with new cases approaching nearly 1,000 again. On Tuesday, 809 new cases were reported. On Wednesday, 718 were reported. 

Looking back a year ago when COVID-19 vaccines were still being studied, in July 2020 there were more than 2,000 new cases. In the winter, the state reached almost 12,000 cases a day. 

The Knox County Health Department said 50% of COVID cases in Tennessee come from the U.K. variant. 21% of COVID cases come from the Delta variant.

While cases remain low in Knox County and the rate of increase in new cases is lower than most counties in the state, KCHD lead epidemiologist Roberta Sturm said the county can expect another spike when colder weather returns based on what we know about COVID-19, how it spreads, and which populations are vaccinated against it.

"We are coming up on fall," Sturm said. "School will be back, university students are starting back."

Just midway through July, KCHD said Knox County has seen 248 new cases this month. The county had a total of 266 cases in all of June, but it doesn't come close to the 773 cases the county saw in May. It's also important to remember most people are gathering in public again and have largely returned to pre-pandemic routines in the past few months -- compared to last year when masking and social distancing measures were being utilized. 

While we might be seeing another uptick, Sturm said there's more people vaccinated against it to reduce the risk of spread, and more knowledge about how to handle the virus.

"We are prepared for it," Sturm said.

As of July 14, 48% of all Knox County residents had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 46% had been fully vaccinated -- which is slightly below the national average of 48%

Statewide, the number of fully-vaccinated people is much lower at 38%, and Tennessee continues to be near the bottom alongside Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho, and Louisiana compared to the rest of the U.S. when it comes to people being vaccinated against COVID-19.

It's important for people who've been vaccinated to remember, while the vaccine is vital at reducing the spread and preventing the most serious complications of the disease, that it cannot provide 100% protection against its spread. Sturm said there are a very small number of people who were either partially or fully vaccinated but later tested positive for COVID-19. 

As of July 6, the CDC said it has recorded 5,186 breakthrough COVID-19 cases resulting in the hospitalization or death of a vaccinated person. To put that number in perspective -- more than 157 million people in the US are fully vaccinated, meaning these breakout cases are incredibly rare, observed in approximately 0.000033% of vaccinated people. 

Health officials said the true number of breakout cases is likely higher, though still very small, due to asymptomatic cases going under the radar, but this also means the vaccine is doing it's primary job to provide protection against serious or noticeable illness.

Breakthrough cases are expected, and the CDC said it happens with virtually all diseases that can be vaccinated against, so long as that disease still survives somewhere in the world and is actively spreading and mutating.