Nov 30, 2021 - COVID

Tennessee braces for Omicron variant

Illustration of an alarm clock made from COVID

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

It's only a matter of time before the new coronavirus variant Omicron reaches Tennessee.

Between the lines: A total of 49.4% residents statewide are fully vaccinated. But the rate in some rural Tennessee counties is much lower, with fewer than one in three people fully vaccinated.

  • "That is something that keeps me up at night," David Aronoff, director of the infectious diseases division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Axios.
  • "The next few weeks are going to be very telling in our state and I certainly hope that we are able to get our vaccine rates up."

Why it matters: While many questions about Omicron remain unanswered, state and local officials are adamant that vaccines and boosters remain the most effective weapon against the virus.

  • "It's probably going to take us about two weeks to know a lot of information about (Omicron)," Metro health director Dr. Gill Wright tells Axios.
  • "We have concerns, as does the World Health Organization, because it has about 30 mutations in the part of the virus called the spike protein. (Fighting the spike protein is) where immunity from the virus for those who've been infected already, as well as the vaccinated, has some of its effect."

The latest: Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey has been briefed by the CDC and the White House.

What's next: Vanderbilt's Aronoff urged Tennesseans to create a "human shield" against the virus by getting vaccinated right away to avoid another surge in line with the Delta variant's arrival.

  • "We are probably hours to days away from learning about cases in the United States," he said. "Being fully immunized stacks the cards in our favor."
  • Metro's Wright says the city's strategy for combating the new variant doesn't change: the health department will continue operating its two vaccine and testing clinics in addition to pop-up clinics.

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