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As hospitals around the region begin to buckle under the surge of COVID-19 patients, local doctors are doing what they can to help get as many people protected against the virus as possible.

COVID-19 cases continued to spike locally throughout the past seven days, particularly among younger adults and children.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 386 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the seven-day period Aug. 12-Aug. 18. There have now been 9,040 COVID-19 cases in Greene County since the pandemic began.

There were 253 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the previous seven-day period.

Six new deaths from COVID-19 were also reported in the county during the period Aug. 12-Aug. 18. COVID-19 has now taken the lives of 169 Greene County residents since the beginning of the pandemic.

Out of the 386 new cases reported Aug. 12-Aug. 18, 311 were in people under the age of 50. 174 were in people and children under the age of 20, which is more than double the number of new cases in that age group during the previous week.

Younger people are vaccinated at a much lower rate in the county, and those younger age demographics are driving the current surge in cases. Only 25.8% of people between the ages of 21-30 are fully vaccinated in Greene County.

It is for that reason that Dr. Theo Hensley of Greeneville Internal Medicine and Family Practice thinks that it is vital that younger people get vaccinated.

“One of the most important reasons for young people to get vaccinated is to protect the rest of the community,” said Hensley. “It is true that young people are less likely to die from the virus, but they spread it to others. I completely understand and respect autonomy, but our mentality should be that we do the right thing to protect our family and our neighbors.”

Dr. Andy Roberts of The Doctors Office in Greeneville believes younger people need to also understand that they too are at risk from COVID-19, particularly from the delta variant of the virus.

“Young people should get vaccinated to cut down on the spread of the virus, and they need to remember that the virus can also make them sick. They are not immune. The new delta variant seems to be attacking younger people at a much higher rate,” said Roberts.

Hensley’s wife, who is 33 years old, contracted COVID-19 nine months ago. She is still dealing with the ramifications.

“My wife was young and healthy and she suffered for a couple weeks. After two weeks we thought she was getting better but then she tanked in the third week, and we had to go to the emergency room a couple times,” Hensley said. “She was able to be treated with oxygen at home to help her recover, but here we are 9 months later and she still requires oxygen from time to time at night in particular.”

Roberts supports masking in schools and vaccination for any child who is old enough.

“Kids have missed out on so much over the last year, and this virus is spreading so much in schools. I would hate if schools had to close again. Students and teachers need to wear masks and get vaccinated for the safety of our children and for the sake of their education. It is the best way to keep schools open,” Roberts said.

Hensley’s children wear a mask every day they go to school.

“There is high quality scientific evidence that wearing masks works. It protects those around you, and it protects the wearer to a degree. Clearly kids can catch this virus and they can spread it,” Hensley said.

Hensley is also concerned about the level of care children will receive at hospitals as they get pushed past capacity.

“Kids are in accidents, some have cancer, and some have diabetes. They need access to ICU beds. COVID-19 patients are taking up a large amount of hospital resources that we cannot afford,” Hensley said. “Right now hospitals are bending and not breaking, but I have seen substandard care in the past few weeks because there is decreased access. We will see care suffering more and more as this gets worse.”

The percentage of residents fully vaccinated in Greene County stands at about 36.5%, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Statewide, about 40.7% of residents have been fully vaccinated. Nationally, 59.8% of the population aged 12 or older has been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers fo Disease Control and Prevention.

‘MISINFORMATION IS RAMPANT’

As both doctors try to encourage as many people as they can to get vaccinated, they are running into the hinderance of misinformation.

“Vaccine misinformation is rampant,” Hensley said, “The internet and social media has made it almost impossible to dispel all the wildly false rumors about vaccination.”

Hensley, who himself participated in a double-blind clinical trial for the Moderna vaccine in Fall of 2020, advocates for the science and safety of the vaccine from firsthand experience. A double-blind trial means that neither the person administering the vaccine, nor the person receiving the vaccine knew if they were getting the real vaccine or not. This is done to prevent any tampering with trial results.

“I was in the Phase 3 clinical trial for Moderna. I can verify that every single step was done in developing the vaccine. The bureaucracy of government approval was accelerated, but no medical steps were rushed,” Hensley said.

Roberts, who was vaccinated in December of 2020, also attests to the safety of the vaccine and continues to try to give his patients factual information.

“Social media and the internet have been very damaging to vaccination efforts,” Roberts said. “I have some patients who have honest concerns about the vaccine, but I see many more who seem to believe everything they read on the internet. For some reason people seem to put a lot of credence in what they hear on Facebook, rather than their doctor. There have been more people concerned for unfounded reasons, than people concerned for actual health reasons.”

Both doctors have heard concerns from women that the vaccine would make them infertile.

“I have heard about so many wild side effects that people hear online, like that the vaccine will make you infertile. That is not true,” Roberts said.

“This is the most robust amount of data we have in the history of vaccines, yet young women still believe that it affects fertility. There is zero evidence that that is the case, and it is incredibly safe for pregnant women as well,” Hensley said.

“It is really disheartening to see so many people taken in by this disinformation when I think about how much risk they are putting themself in. This delta variant surge is really scary right now and it’s getting out of control,” Roberts said.

“Misinformation is rampant and it is really sad,” Hensley said. “Youtube videos with debunked claims get shared millions of times. I have seen more and more doctors speaking out to get the truth about the safety of these vaccines out there. It is all hands on deck to educate people, and it has to be done quickly.”

Both doctors think that politics should be left out of a person’s decision to get vaccinated.

“Public health does not have a political agenda. While, some politicians, both Republican and Democrat, have caused clear damage to vaccination efforts, I don’t see that someone is making a political statement from getting vaccinated,” Hensley said.

“Politics should not affect anyone’s decision to get vaccinated,” Roberts said. “I think that sometimes younger people fear getting vaccinated because they have friends who are against vaccination and they are afraid of what their friends might think. No one should be afraid of being judged for getting vaccinated.”

The current surge in COVID-19 cases surprised Hensley in its timing.

“This surge has caught us by surprise with how early it hit. We expected another wave with only one-third of people in the county vaccinated, but we expected it in September or October, however, delta came early,” Hensley said. “This strain is 60% more contagious and is affecting many more young people. We are also seeing breakthrough cases in immunocompromised people, meaning people who are undergoing cancer treatment or who take medication that causes their immune system to be weakened. They make up 40% of breakthrough cases.”

The rapid spread of the delta variant has affected many of the patients Roberts usually sees in his office.

“We have had more patients call in the last week telling us that they have tested positive and cannot make their appointment than we have ever had during this entire pandemic. Even more than during the winter,” Roberts said.

Hensley and Roberts are both bracing for a rough next couple months.

“This is spreading so quickly that there will be a continued rapid increase in cases, and if not enough people are vaccinated or already immune, it will spread so rampantly that our hospitals could be crippled. I anticipate the next two months will be pretty rough. We are in a very bad situation,” Hensley said.

“I hope people will respect and fear this delta variant enough to start their vaccination series. I have noticed more of my patients getting vaccinated in the last week or so because I get notified by the pharmacy when it occurs,” Roberts said. “It is going to get a lot more serious in the next month. It could go really badly if we don’t start getting more people vaccinated and wearing masks. We need to think about our fellow man instead of just ourselves.”

The Greene County Health Department at 810 W. Church St. is currently offering free COVID-19 vaccines, either drive-up or walk-in. No appointment is necessary. However, those who prefer to make an appointment can go to tn.gov to reserve times for a first or second dose.

Adults aged 18 and older are eligible for all COVID-19 vaccines while children ages 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The Health Department is also offering COVID-19 testing 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m.

The Health Department is open 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.