A study confirmed the expected rise in variant B117 cases in the Appalachian Highlands.

BRISTOL – No more second guessing. Ballad Health received the first of multiple studies conducted by Bio Bot Analytics on Wednesday and the report surprised no one. The wastewater testing showed the UK variant of the virus is now the dominant version in Southwest Virginia and the rest of the Appalachian Highlands.

Wastewater treatment centers in Johnson City, Tennessee, Kingsport, Tennessee, and Bristol, located on the Virginia-Tennessee line, participated in the study.

Ballad answered several questions with the testing, said Dr. Clay Runnels. He serves as the company’s chief physician executive.

“Do we have significant COVID virus spread in the area? Does that correlate with what we’re seeing with testing, etcetera? Is there a significant presence of variants, particularly the UK variant, which we suspected we had in the region?” Runnels said. “I think I can safely say we’ve answered those questions.”

The average level of COVID present in the samples from the local testing sites came back higher than the average in the United States for the past six weeks.

“So we do have a significant amount of COVID-19 spread in the region, based on the wastewater testing,” Runnels said.

The Variants Spread in Southwest Virginia

The study also confirmed a regional suspicion.

“We also do have a high burden of the UK variant present in our wastewater samples,” Runnels said.

The study revealed the UK strain overtook Southwest Virginia and the rest of the region as the most dominant strain.

Wastewater testing in the area is not over.

“We have contracted for additional samples,” Runnels said. “We will be doing three cycles of testing over a four-week period.”

Runnels expected the results from the second round of testing as soon as next week.

“That will help us with trending of the virus spread in the region as well [and will] give us some additional data points for that,” Runnels said.

The Virginia Department of Health, through routine surveillance, also identified the South African variant and the Brazilian variant regionally.

“Again, these things are not surprising,” Runnels said. “These variants are spreading broadly throughout the United States at this point and we expected to see them at some point.”

Southwest Virginia Offers A Different Demographic

In connection with the variant spread – which is more contagious than the original virus for those under 65 – the region saw larger numbers of people in their 30s and 40s infected with the virus.

“I think the concerning thing here is, the average age of those patients hospitalized dropped down to just below 60 years of age,” said Ballad Health’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton. “So we’re seeing younger people, they’re both getting COVID-19 and being hospitalized.”

Deaton noted that approximately two-thirds of COVID patients in a Ballad Health facility were between the ages of 40 and 69.

“Before, we had about half-and-half or maybe more patients that were dying were those that were in the community or maybe, like, in a nursing home, something like that. That tends to show you that most of those people were maybe more [elderly patients],” Deaton said. “What we’re seeing now, through, for the month of April, [is] that of the 50 deaths that we’ve had, 40 of those have been within one of the facilities that we operate. Obviously concerning because we’re seeing more deaths happening in the hospital, whereas before we probably saw more deaths happening in the community, or like I said, in other long-term care type of facilities. So again, it shows you that we’re seeing younger people get this disease and actually die [from] COVID-19 in our facilities.”

Runnels expressed the importance of fending off the virus.

“Specifically to the younger population, we are seeing additional spread or higher spread in those younger populations,” Runnels said. “Please consider the vaccine if you’re eligible, as well as continue to use masking, distancing and hand washing to protect yourself and the ones that you love.”

By the Numbers

For the first time in since the first week of March, the number of COVID cases in the region trended downward. The percent positivity rate in the Appalachian Highlands region dropped from 11.7% to 10.7% over a seven-day period.

Regional cases declined this week over the past week by approximately 17%.

Patients hospitalized with COVID also decreased from 137 last week to 122 this week. Those in intensive case increased by one patient, up from 29 last week to 30 this week. The number of patients on ventilators also rose, up from 20 last week to 22 this week.

Sadly, the region accounted for a pandemic-total of 2,008 COVID-related deaths over the past week.

“The concerning thing here, obviously, it’s a terrible milestone for us to have, to exceed 2,000 deaths across our region,” Deaton said.

Encouraging Vaccination

If you want to cut down on the deaths and return to normal, only one thing will do it. Doctors encouraged Southwest Virginia locals to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Here’s what’s not changed: the vaccine is still a major weapon against all of these strains,” Runnels said. “[The vaccine] can help us get through the pandemic and get to herd immunity.”

Deaton noted that when vaccines reached the region at the end of last year, the area experienced a significant drop in cases. Unfortunately, numbers rose again in the spring.

“Not enough of our communities have been vaccinated yet. That’s a real concern for us,” Deaton said. “We want people to continue to be vaccinated. We think that that is the best way to get back to the most normal that we can.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com

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