State confirms community spread of COVID-19

Gov. Bill Lee and TDH Commissioner Lisa Piercey

Less than two weeks after the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first identified in Tennessee, the highly transmissible strain has become the dominant variant among new infections in the state. 

It is the fastest a variant has taken over the total number of cases in Tennessee to date, a testament to the contagious nature of the evolved virus. Early reports indicate it may cause a less severe illness than its predecessors, however state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey says it’s still too early to know how it will impact the population and local hospitals. 

“In a span of two weeks it has gone [from] essentially no one to perhaps a projected 95 percent [of new cases in the South],” Piercey said in briefing Wednesday morning. “Here in Tennessee, we believe ours is around 80 percent, but that number is not going to age very well because it’s spreading very quickly.”

Tennessee has seen recent increases in cases of COVID-19 across the board and hospitalizations are beginning to tick upwards as well, but the accuracy of the state’s outbreak data is evolving. With the advent of at-home testing, Piercey says more cases are going unreported and out of view of contract tracers — making it difficult to track intricate details of how the virus is spreading.  

The state also did an end-of-year data refresh, which added nearly 2,500 more deaths to the state’s tally of COVID-19 fatalities that had previously gone unaccounted for. As of Wednesday morning, state health officials reported that 20,644 Tennessee residents have died after being infected with the virus. 

Piercey also told reporters that the health department is beginning to integrate COVID-19 operations and testing as a part of their long-term strategy as they transition to manage the outbreak as an endemic. Right now, the team at the health department are watching to see how the recent uptick of the Omicron variant will affect hospitalizations. 

“Because this variant is moving so quickly, we aren’t sure yet if it causes hospitalization as often or if there just hasn’t been enough time,” she said.