NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WZTV) —New data from Vanderbilt researchers shows the concentration of Tennessee's COVID-19 cases right now is among unvaccinated younger adults and mainly teen who've returned back to school.
Coupled with a recent surge in hospitalizations, researchers with Vanderbilt's MicroBiome Center say it "underscores that severe COVID-19 can and does afflict anyone, including adults who may feel they are young and healthy enough to forego vaccination."
Oldest Tennesseans have a higher vaccination rate than younger Tennesseans, and researchers say younger age groups are accounting for the most COVID-19 cases in the state right now.
The largest growth in cases (adjusted for population) has been concentrated among young adults—and in particular among teenagers—many of whom returned to school beginning in late July and early August, researchers wrote.
Nashville, Knoxville, and Memphis regions have the highest vaccination rates in almost every age group - while the Upper Cumberland area, including Cookeville and surrounding counties, have the lowest.
Hospitalizations have been top of the mind for most officials as a new surge of cases, fueled by the Delta variant, runs rampant in Tennessee. As of Thursday, hospital capacity was down to 6% for ICU and for 10% beds with 2,490 COVID patients, including 61 children.
In fact, researchers say Tennessee is now experiencing its highest growth in hospitalizations than at any point in the pandemic.
The Volunteer State experienced a ten-fold rise in hospitalization from July to August.
"Since mid-July, the rate of increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations has been higher than at any point in the pandemic," researchers wrote.
If this rate of increase continues, Tennessee may soon eclipse high-water marks in ICU and ventilation use last seen in January.
Vanderbilt researchers attribute the surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to the emergence of the Delta variant, coupled with folks returning to normal.
Hospitalizations also have been concentrated primarily among the unvaccinated. Importantly, immunity acquired through prior infection provides some level of protection—though emerging scientific evidence suggests that unvaccinated individuals with prior COVID-19 are twice as likely to become infected by the Delta variant than those who have been vaccinated.
Researchers, as well as health experts, stress the vaccine is the best tool against COVID-19.
And while Tennessee has seen some "breakthrough cases," very few of these cases reach the severity seen in unvaccinated individuals. Healthcare providers say 97% of Tennessee's virus hospitalizations are unvaccinated.
Having fewer high severity illnesses within a community can help prevent hospital capacity challenges.