KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A federal COVID-19 hot spot response team has released its recommendations for Knox County two weeks after visiting Knoxville and meeting with community and health leaders.

The three-person team tasked by the Department of Health and Human Services came to hear concerns and determine possible root causes of the local increase in COVID-19 cases, and assist Knox County leaders to identify key actions that could be taken to reduce the impact of the novel coronavirus locally.

In a release Tuesday the team offered seven recommendations to help combat the local spike in cases:

  • Increase the use of masks and face coverings.
  • Decrease turnaround time for SARS-CoV-2 testing and increase the capability to test more specimens.
  • Release funding from the state Health Department to the Knox County Health Department.
  • Consider ways to support hospitals with surge staffing while allowing them to operate other essential services.
  • Engage Voluntary or Community Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD/COAD) to help relieve pressure on stressed or overworked county health departments.
  • Explore the development of a Long-Term Community Recovery Group.
  • Follow-up actions for the Coronavirus Response Assistance Field Team.

The county board of health has already increased mask usage. Before the team’s visit, the board voted 7-1 on July 1 to require masks and face coverings to be worn in indoor public spaces. However, the team suggested the county mandate is not enough.

“Consistent messaging from all levels of the government – federal, state, and local – is needed to stem transmission,” the team’s news release said. “The message should be that it is important to protect the economy AND the health of our citizens (not either/or). Currently, there is a countywide indoor mask mandate in Knox County, but surrounding counties do not have mandates and are unlikely to pass them. A statewide mandate is needed.”

KCHD is also working to decrease the wait times down to a recommended four days or less. The current wait time is somewhere around a week but can take up to 12 days Buchanan said on Monday during the department’s regular briefing.

The idea of using university laboratories to speed of testing is an avenue the federal team is suggesting.

No details were given as to why funding from the state Health Department to the Knox County Health Department was being held up. The state announced Monday the addition of $115 million in new funding for COVID-19 recovery. It is unclear if KCHD still hasn’t received funding from the state from the federal CARES Act.

KCHD is asking the team to help them with how to manage COVID-19 cases among the homeless, increase staff resiliency in the face of extra stress and fatigue, gather information on school reopenings across the country, provide staff and resources for Kirundi speaking people, and gather information on the anticipated cost of Remdesivir, a drub being tested as a cure for COVID-19.

Kirundi, is the national language of the African nation of Burundi. The Knox County Health Department has identified clusters of cases among Kirundi-speaking refugees working in adult care homes and among transient Hispanic construction workers. The department says the Kirundi and Hispanic clusters are not the majority of cases but where resources are needed for outreach.

Maureen Bartee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Spence with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Lochlin Sturrock with Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response within the DHHS met with Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan, UT Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Keith Gray and others July 7-10.