Coronavirus in Tennessee: Knox County Health Department director addresses death certificate confusion

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The Knox County Health Department has released coronavirus data from the first day of September.

The Health Department on Tuesday reported no new deaths and 91 new cases of the novel coronavirus, a 1.39% increase in the total case count. KCHD officials also reported 90 new recoveries.

There are now 2,316 active cases in Knox County, up from 2,226 Monday.

Of the 58 deaths in Knox County, 53 have occurred since July 2. Knox County reported 19 deaths in the month of August.

Of the 6,642 total confirmed cases reported in Knox County since the pandemic began, 266 of them have resulted in hospitalization at any point during the illness. There are 45 Knox County patients currently hospitalized.

The number of recoveries is at 4,502. Recovered cases refer to those who have been released from isolation after 10 days from their onset of symptoms, plus 24 hours of being symptom-free. Recovered does not mean necessarily the person had to be hospitalized.

Knox County Health Department lists 234 probable cases of COVID-19 on the county website.

Testing returns to the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park this week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

KCHD updates its numbers daily at 11 a.m. Visit covid.knoxcountytn.gov for more information. Press briefings by Knox County Health Department have been moved to Tuesday and Thursday. Briefings begin at 12:30 p.m.

COVID-19 deaths, death certificates explained

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, addressed the confusion surrounding COVID-19 deaths and death certificates following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report released two weeks ago.

Buchanan reiterated the majority of coronavirus deaths are among the elderly and those with co-validities, or preexisting conditions, and that many East Tennesseans have a preexisting condition like obesity, cancer or diabetes.

“We know this is confusing but the bottom line is people are dying from this virus either directly or as a significantly contributing factor. Those with preexisting conditions may be more susceptible to complications and have several conditions listed on a death certificate. That does not take away from the fact that if they didn’t contract COVID-19, they likely would still be here today.”

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department

The Tennessee Department of Health allows only the attending physician or, in some cases, the medical examiner determine the cause of death put on the death certificate.

“In Tennessee, the state medical examiner’s office reviews all COVID-19-associated deaths,” Buchanan said. “Deaths are only counted as COVID-19 related if the virus is found to be a significant contributing factor to the death. If someone tests positive then sadly dies in an accident completely unrelated to COVID-19, they would not be counted in the death count for COVID-19.”

There can also be additional conditions that contribute to the death created by the virus. Buchanan offered the example of respiratory failure associated with COVID-19.

“If someone were to die, respiratory failure would also be listed on a death certificate as well as COVID-19. The individual may have died from respiratory failure but it was COVID-19 that was the underlying cause of death.”

Six months of COVID-19

Today, Sept. 1, marks the sixth month of the coronavirus pandemic locally. Buchanan was asked what six months from now could look like. She said changes back to normal would be gradual and that is ultimately up to whether there is a vaccine available.

“What it looks like in six months depends on so many different things,” Buchanan said. “If we have a vaccine, it will probably look a little bit different; it won’t look a whole lot different. … We won’t be able to vaccine everyone immediately.”

Most likely recommendations of social distancing, hand washing and mask usage would still be in place since two doses of vaccine and a threshold of “herd immunity” would be required to return to pre-COVID-19 life, Buchanan said.

Labor Day holiday looming

Buchanan offered more Labor Day gathering advice Tuesday. A week after suggesting social distancing-approved children’s activities and outdoor gatherings, she warned residents not to get complacent.

In the past six months major holidays, like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, were followed by spikes of COVID-19 cases. Buchanan said the Health Department is releasing data about COVID-19 and holidays either Wednesday or Thursday to hammer home the point.

“The virus does not take a holiday,” she said. “It does not celebrate Labor Day. It is still in our community and is still able to be passed if you are having a barbecue.”

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