Coronavirus Tennessee: Knox County Health Dept. calls for community buy-in to curb COVID-19 spread

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The community has to do its part to limit the spread of COVID-19. That was the message Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan gave during her Tuesday media briefing.

As active cases continue to rise at near-record pace for the county, Buchanan said how and how fast this novel coronavirus spreads is up to the community.

“It is critical that everyone in our community take personal responsibility for their actions to keep themselves and others safe and healthy,” she said, repeating her plea to follow the KCHD’s five core action plan.

“If we want to have any semblance of normal life for this fall, we all need to follow the five core actions.”

While active cases and probable cases continue to rise, testing is trending down. One reason she believes testing is down is people are afraid of the consequences of a positive test, like forcing their close contacts to quarantine.

“What we know is that we have cases in the community and what we are concerned about is that people are not getting tested,” Buchanan said. “What that means is that a person who is a case, and maybe they aren’t very sick or maybe not be sick at all, they’re spreading it to their friends and family, the very people they’re trying to protect from being quarantined.”

Buchanan said quarantine and self-isolation policies are not fun but they are a proven public health practice not just for COVID-19 but other diseases as well. She asked that those who are contacted by the Health Department to cooperate, something they don’t always get.

“Just like many other public health practices, we rely on community compliance to make it happen,” Buchanan said.

Regulation enforcement

The Knox County Health Department is continuing to use education rather than enforcement when it comes to COVID-19 regulations. According to Buchanan, the reason is two-fold: unclear regulations and lack of support from law enforcement.

Buchanan compared the Knox County Health Department’s food regulation division to its COVID-19 response task force.

“When you have a regulation and you’re going to try to enforce it, it has to be really clear,” she said, giving the example of temperatures of prepared and unprepared foods at a restaurant.

The coronavirus task force has to receive policy from the Knox County Board of Health to enforce. Those enforcement duties will be given either to KCHD or law enforcement depending on how the policy is written.

The Board of Health is meeting from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday and one policy that is being considered is a cutoff for all sales and public alcohol consumption at restaurants and bars in Knox County. Currently, only bars are suspended from on-site consumption after 10 p.m.

Buchanan said the alcohol sales suspension is one example given by Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Deborah Birx. Birx was in Knoxville on Tuesday to speak at the University of Tennessee concerning the high number of students in quarantine there and to talk with Knox County and Knoxville leaders.

“Based on that information, there’s some data to support taking that action,” Buchanan said of the alcohol curfew.

Vaccine availability, flu season

A COVID-19 vaccine is still a way off but preparations are in place. Buchanan said she and her staff have had many talks with the Tennessee Department of Health about distribution and availability.

There is no approved vaccine yet and no information on when it might be in Knoxville.

“We don’t count on vaccine until it’s in our door,” Buchanan said.

Since COVID-19 guidelines limit the number of people in close proximity to each other, KCHD is changing the way it will give out flu mist and shots this year to Knox County students. This year the Health Department plans on hosting events later in the day on and off school campuses to reach more people.

Buchanan said the department is trying to get the flu vaccine out to as many people as possible this year.

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