Oak Ridge leaders urge caution as virus found in wastewater from all parts of city

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ANDERSON COUNTY, Tenn. (WATE) — Oak Ridge city leaders are concerned about the impact that upcoming holidays will have on the already soaring number of new COVID-19 cases in the area.

On Monday, Oak Ridge City Council passed a resolution urging the public to double down on efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. It encouraged them to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, avoid crowds, and social distance.

In a news release sent Thursday, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said, “As I observe the rise in positive virus activity in Oak Ridge, every smallest precaution we take can avoid serious health consequences. As I observe those that have had COVID, they do not want to go through it again.”

Watson tested positive for COVID-19 Friday, according to a city spokesperson. They also say Watson is experiencing mild symptoms and “the city is contact tracing and anyone who may have been in contact with him has been tested and will quarantine pending negative results. He will be quarantined at home for the next week.”

It underscores their message of caution ahead of Thanksgiving, now fewer than two weeks away.

Oak Ridge City Council Member, Ellen Smith, is concerned about the impact the holiday will have on their already growing new case count.

“We’re going to be seeing some behavior that’s likely to transmit virus. We know that many people do fine with this virus, but a significant fraction do get hospitalized, need significant medical treatment, and some will die,” she said.

The city began testing their wastewater for COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in July. Shira McWaters, Public Works Director for the City of Oak Ridge, explained results went up and down from week to week throughout the summer; however, results from recent weeks are “consistently in the yellow zone, which means you have to be careful because you can go to red,” she said.

The testing doesn’t show how many people in the city are COVID-19 positive, but it does show where people have the virus. At this point, McWaters said, it’s prevalent city-wide. In fact, tested samples are showing more of the virus now than any point since they started the weekly testing.

Smith believes more city-specific data, other than wastewater testing, would lead to more diligence from the public.

“I think if people knew where cases are occurring, what kinds of things are causing case clusters, that would improve their willingness to comply. When all it is is numbers, it’s really hard to take it seriously,” she said.

City leaders estimate the positivity rate in Oak Ridge, or the percentage of how many completed tests come back positive for the virus, at 12.5%. That comes from an average of rates from Roane and Anderson Counties.

Using some of the data available within a four week period, Smith estimated a new average of seven new cases daily.

Methodist Medical Center sent a statement on the uptick in cases:

Methodist Medical Center works collaboratively with other Covenant Health hospitals to assure that we are prepared to meet our community’s healthcare needs. With the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in our region, the approaching holiday season and an anticipated increase in seasonal respiratory illnesses during fall and winter, we urge people to follow the “five core actions” to minimize the spread of COVID‐19. These include washing hands frequently, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, cleaning frequently touched surfaces regularly and staying home if you are sick. In addition, getting an influenza vaccine this fall will be more important than ever, not only to reduce your family’s risk from flu but also to help conserve healthcare resources and keep our community safe from another respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic. We encourage everyone ages 6 months or older to get a flu shot.

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