Though February’s Blount COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are consistent with previous months, local health officials are encouraged by curbed case numbers and accessible vaccines — both of which they said signal a potential end to the pandemic in Blount County.

From Feb. 1-19, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 1,186 Blount County coronavirus cases, 23 new hospitalizations and 31 deaths. The same time period in January saw 2,053 cases, 22 new hospitalizations and 28 deaths.

Month over month, that’s about 46 less Blount COVID-19 cases daily while deaths and hospitalizations remained the same.

“When you look at numbers across the state, hospitalizations are declining, although not all hospitals or regions are seeing it consistently just yet,” Blount Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harold Naramore said. “Hospitalizations are definitely trending down, though, and that’s a good sign. Those hospitalizations are lower because we’re also seeing fewer new cases being reported.”

Though the hospitalization and death numbers are roughly the same month over month, the pandemic seems to be easing in Blount County — considering February numbers would be significantly higher if the county continued the rate of COVID-19 growth it was seeing in January.

“As the number of new cases drops, we see the number of hospitalizations drop, too, also decreasing the likelihood for deaths,” Naramore said. “It’s the opposite of the domino effect we’ve talked about as new cases were on the increase, and it’s the type of domino effect that we have been wanting to see for a really long time.”

Blount Memorial has admitted only 13 COVID-19 patients in February, hospital data showed. TDH’s report of 23 newly hospitalized patients includes residents of Blount County who may be hospitalized outside of the county.

Naramore said BMH’s decrease in hospitalizations could be credited to its use of monoclonal antibodies in coronavirus patients.

If a person who qualifies because of age and health conditions tests positive for COVID-19 at the hospital’s clinic, East Tennessee Medical Group, he or she can receive the antibodies in an outpatient setting.

“I do believe that this has helped people recover at home who otherwise may have required hospitalization,” Naramore said.

But not everyone can receive the antibodies; many still require hospitalization and some succumb to the virus, dying after days or weeks alone in a hospital room.

It’s the elderly that are most likely to fall victim to the severe outcomes of the virus. TDH data shows that 63% of hospitalizations and 87% of deaths have been Tennesseans ages 61 and older.

“If we get the vaccine in these individuals, even if we don’t have enough people receive the vaccine to get us to herd immunity, we’re going to make an impact on hospitalizations and deaths,” Naramore said.

He has echoed for months that vaccinating high-risk people is imperative to easing strains on the health care system, healing the community and stopping the virus.

But data showing consistent coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths, even as vaccines roll out on schedule and in large quantities, can be disconcerting — considering the shot has been hailed as the ticket to a restored normality and an end to goodbyes forced by the virus.

“The virus may still spread amongst us, but those who are most likely to become severely ill, require hospitalization and have a higher likelihood of dying — they are the ones the vaccine benefits the most,” Naramore said.

As of Feb. 18, TDH reported that 6.47% of Blount County was vaccinated fully, and 3.94% had received the first dose.

Blount County will open vaccination appointments to people ages 65 and older and those in the state vaccination plan’s Phase 1b — K-12 teachers, child care staff, first responder operations staff and air traffic controllers.

Those eligible may schedule vaccination appointments via the state’s newly launched online tool at covid19.tn.gov or by calling 865-549-5343.

Follow @_shelbyharris on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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