Coronavirus in Tennessee: Knox County Health Dept. updates benchmarks, mask mandate effectiveness too early to tell

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The Knox County Health Department reported its 21st death from COVID-19 on Wednesday in the county’s first triple-digit rise in cases since Saturday.

Of the 123 new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday, Knox County reported one new death, 58 new active cases and 64 new recoveries.

There are now 1,392 active COVID-19 cases in Knox County and 21 people have died from the virus. Sixteen of the 21 deaths in the county have been reported since July 2.

It’s only the fourth day where Knox County reported 100 or more COVID-19 cases in one day. Cases rose by 147 on Friday and 110 new cases were reported on Saturday. The first spike of 100 or more cases was on Tuesday, July 14.

Of the 2,515 total cases seen in Knox County since the pandemic began, 171 of them have resulted in hospitalization at any point during the illness. There are 38 Knox County patients currently hospitalized, down from 45 on Tuesday.

The number of recoveries grew to 1,102. Recovered cases refer to those who have been released from isolation after 10 days from their onset of symptoms, plus 72 hours of being symptom-free. Recovered does not mean necessarily the person had to be hospitalized.

Knox County currently lists 117 probable cases of COVID-19 on the county website.

The Knox County Health Department updates its numbers daily at 11 a.m. Visit covid.knoxcountytn.gov for more information. Press briefings by Knox County Health Department are held at 12:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Benchmarks update

The Health Department’s weekly benchmarks update was a mixed bag on Wednesday. Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness at KCHD, announced a “red light” for two benchmarks, a “yellow light” for two benchmarks and a “green light” for one benchmark.

 Red signifies the trends are not moving towards benchmark attainment and may indicate adjustments need to be made.

 Yellow signifies the trends are moving towards/away from reaching benchmark attainment. Yellow indicates caution.

 Green signifies that the benchmark is currently met.

The number of new cases tracked in benchmark No. 1, sustained reduction or stability in new cases for 14 days, continue to climb. The benchmark received a red light. Menefee said it a troubling trend.

“This is a concerning trend and one that is causing us to approach a new normal for new cases,” she said. “These large day-to-day increases is not normal we want to see.”

Benchmark No. 2, communitywide sustained and increased diagnostic testing with consistent or decreased test result reporting turnaround time, was set to yellow.

Testing times at the Health Department are taking as long as 10 to 12 days making for long quarantine times between tests and results. Menefee said KCHD is doing about 16% of the testing being done across Knox County. The average wait time for a test across the county is less than four days.

“We are looking at all the testing that we’re able to see, which is a sample, and that number continues to trend up,” Menefee said in explaining the yellow designation. “It was a little bit lower (this week), but the trend is still moving up. And so that’s why we made it a yellow.”

Benchmark No. 3, sustained or increased public health capability, was set to green. Staffing has met the needs so far for the department but Menefee noted that stress and fatigue on staff is increasing. Epidemiology and contact tracing staff are working seven days a week and some are beginning work at 5 a.m. to meet the needs of the day.

Benchmark No. 4, health care system capabilities remain within current and forecasted surge capability, was set to yellow. Increases in the use of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators were all seen this week across the Knoxville region. Adddiotal surge capacity resources have not been needed as of yet.

Benchmark No. 5, sustained or decreased COVID-19 death rate for identified positive or probable cases, was set to red. KCHD made a new graph this week showing the deaths for each day in Knox County. Menefee said 54% of the deaths have occurred in the lsat two weeks.

Mask mandate effectiveness

The local mask mandate’s effectiveness in lowering the rate of COVID-19 transmission is still to be seen. Menefee said there simply hasn’t been enough time to see a difference given the virus’s incubation period.

” This would probably be the earliest we would start seeing any impact from the mask ordinance,” she said Wednesday. “And that’s still honestly being very generous. When you think about cases that were already out there and people that have been exposed and all of the contacts that folks have, it’s going to take some time to see an impact. And we hope that we do see that soon, but this is a pretty short time frame still.

When asked about the federal hot spot team’s recommendation of a statewide mask mandate, Menefee said masks and the five core actions are important but the decision is up to the governor.

“It’s up to the governor’s office, whether that becomes a statewide mandate or not, but we do very much endorse and support people wearing masks when in public or around other people,” she said. “Even if you’re having a dinner party or a party at your house and people are coming in and you can’t stay six feet apart. You need to wear the mask.”

Menefee said she doesn’t know the pandemic will end; that depends on the community’s mitigation response, availability to treatment and the finding of a vaccine.

Schools

KCHD and Knox County Schools have been meeting weekly as schools get set to start again in a few weeks. The Health Department has been sharing data to help the school board form its reopening plans but ultimately, the reopening

“We understand that is a very, very challenging and difficult decision for these families to make,” Menefee said. “But we want to encourage people and empower people to look at the data that’s out there, talk to your schools, talk to your medical providers, and make the best decision for your families.

“I think it’s a good thing that there is a choice so that you can make what you feel is the best choice and do what you feel is right. And we want to encourage people to do that. There’s not a right or wrong answer there.

“And, you know, if you have questions, definitely talk to your provider. If you’re concerned about your health. If you’re working in the schools or your child’s health if they have some pre-existing conditions they might be able to help.

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