Anticipating Action

Anticipating Action

As the coronavirus arrives in Tennessee, officials implement response plans, impose travel restrictions and take other precautions.

by scott barker • March 6,2020
Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan.

Hours after Gov. Bill Lee announced the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case on Thursday, Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said an undetermined number of East Tennesseans have been tested for the virus.

International travel bans at UT and ORNL are among the measures being taken to limit the impact of the coronavirus in East Tennessee.

While no one has tested positive in Knox County yet, Buchanan said the Health Department is asking people who have been tested to self-quarantine while waiting for the results.

Meanwhile, local hospitals, governments, first responders, schools and businesses are implementing plans for a seemingly inevitable arrival of the coronavirus here. “Public Health was expecting this, we’re prepared for this,” Buchanan said.

Lee announced the state’s first confirmed case is a 44-year-old Williamson County resident who recently traveled to Boston and possibly contracted the virus at a conference. Officials say he is quarantined at his home with mild symptoms, according to the Tennessean.

Williamson County Schools will be closed today and Monday for a thorough cleaning of system’s campuses, though the child of the infected patient attends private Battle Ground Academy and has shown no symptoms.

“As we’ve seen this week in Tennessee, preparedness is critical, and I have full confidence in the preparedness plan we have put in place,” Lee said.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett also expressed confidence in the state’s ability to respond to an outbreak. “It is extremely important to follow guidance from health authorities to keep yourself and others safe during this time,” he said.

Congress has passed a $7.8 billion coronavirus response bill, which includes funding for state and local health departments.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Tennessee Department of Health had tested eight people for the coronavirus, or COVID-19, and had kits for 85 more. Buchanan said positive test samples from the state lab are sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation, which can take a few days.

Coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and has quickly spread around the world. Nearly 98,000 people worldwide had been infected as of early Thursday evening. More than 3,300 have died. 

China, South Korea, Vietnam, Iran and Italy have been especially hard hit, but other countries are seeing infections as well. In the United States, the death toll has reached 14, most of them in the Seattle area. There have been more than 200 confirmed cases in 18 states, including 75 in Washington state and Tennessee’s first. 

“The situation is changing every day, almost by the minute,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan cautioned against overreacting to the arrival of the coronavirus in the state. “For most of the state of Tennessee, you’re more at risk of getting the flu than the coronavirus,” she said. “People need to step back and take a look at the true risk of contracting coronavirus.”

Basic hygiene like washing hands is the first line of defense, Buchanan said, as well as limiting travel to infected areas and exposure to people known to be infected. People showing symptoms should stay home from work and other places where they can spread infections of any sort. “If you’re sick, it’s not the time to visit grandma in the nursing home,” she said.

At least two local institutions that rely on international travel to fulfill their missions, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, are taking precautions.

ORNL is screening visitors and restricting access to people who have recently traveled from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea. The lab is also monitoring the situation in Japan. David Keim, ORNL’s communications director, said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution.

“We had two staff members return from China several weeks ago,” Keim said on Thursday. “They followed the 14-day self-quarantine guidelines, developed no symptoms, and have returned to work. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is following official travel guidance from the CDC and State Department, which has since restricted official travel to China altogether.”

ORNL has begun requiring leadership approval for foreign travel, Keim said, and is encouraging staff to delay domestic travel or use videoconferencing and other methods of collaboration.

UT Knoxville is banning university-related foreign travel altogether for the month of March and suspending it indefinitely afterwards. “This includes travel related to teaching, research or grant activity, internships, conference and presentations, performances, and athletics,” Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote in a letter to the UT community.

UT is also discouraging personal international travel and instructing those returning from abroad to follow CDC guidelines and contact their supervisors before returning to campus. University-sponsored international travel during spring break is canceled as well, as are study abroad sessions in Italy, Japan, China and South Korea.

Plowman wrote that it’s unlikely UT would be able to avoid the virus. The university has set up its emergency operations center and has created a webpage for coronavirus response information and updates.

UT spokesman Owen Driskill said officials are reviewing the university’s pandemic plan and taking proactive measures.

UT’s Office of Emergency Management, Student Health, Center for Global Engagement and additional offices are monitoring the situation daily,” 

he said. “The campus also has a cross-departmental Emergency Response Team that is meeting regularly.”

Local governments and Knox County Schools also have protocols in place to react to disruptions in operations. Long-term care facilities also have infection control plans. The Health Department is in regular contact with most major local institutions. “We have always had a ‘novel virus’ plan,” Buchanan said.

Lee has named Buchanan to serve on a 15-member task force to “develop and execute strong precautionary measures, resource allocation, and emergency response plans should the need arise in Tennessee."

Buchanan said the Health Department deals with diseases like the flu and tuberculosis on a regular basis, and is prepared for anticipated coronavirus cases. “Honestly,” she said, “what we’re doing with the coronavirus is what we do every day.”