COVID-19 Spreads to East Tennessee
With no cases confirmed in Knox County, UT suspends travel and prepares for online instruction, while the Health Department monitors the situation.
by jesse fox mayshark and scott barker • march 11, 2020
local websites have filled up with information about the coronavirus outbreak.
Tuesday afternoon, the Tennessee Department of Health confirmed the first East Tennessee case of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19, in what the department initially described as “the Sullivan County metro area.”
Reports of canceled classes and festivals elsewhere put local officials on alert.
Sullivan County is home to Kingsport and Blountville. Dr. Stephen May, regional medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, told local media the patient was an elderly man who had just returned from abroad. May did not say which country the man had traveled to, but he said it was a country with confirmed coronavirus cases.
As of last night, there were no confirmed cases in Knox County.
The announcement of the Sullivan County case, the seventh so far in Tennessee, came during a day of fast-moving news and even faster moving rumors. As word arrived from farther afield of closed schools and canceled festivals, Knoxville’s local institutions began to escalate their precautionary measures.
The University of Tennessee scheduled a media briefing to reiterate its efforts to both prepare for and ideally prevent community spread of the virus. All of UT's information is available on an online portal, with links to resources for each of the system's campuses (here is Knoxville’s).
The university did take the added step of canceling all non-essential UT-related travel out of state, on top of an earlier restriction on international travel. Chancellor Donde Plowman sent out a campuswide email saying she has instructed all faculty and graduate teaching assistants to prepare "to move classes online should we need to suspend on-campus teaching."
She also addressed questions about a group of 12 visiting Japanese students who have been sequestered at Laurel Hall since they arrived on March 3 for a five-week program in UT's English Language Institute. Plowman said none of them had or had exhibited any COVID-19 symptoms.
"This is not a time for panic but a time for preparation and leadership," Plowman wrote.
During a media briefing yesterday, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, emphasized keeping the risk in perspective and using judgment. "There's no reason to be panicked or no reason to be scared at this point," she said.
The state's decision to stop identifying cases by county — which officials said was to protect the privacy of the affected patients — came under criticism yesterday from health experts, open government advocates and Democrats in the Legislature.
By the end of the day, Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey had reversed the policy. "TDH will release counties of residence for all confirmed cases, but will not include further identifying factors like age or gender as we balance transparency with our obligation to lawfully protect patient privacy,“ Piercey said in a statement.
Buchanan said in yesterday's briefing and again while updating City Council last night that her department will alert the public if or when there is a confirmed case in Knox County. “We will announce the first case,” she said. “We’ll give very little information about that person in the interest of their privacy.”
After announcing the first case, Buchanan continued, the Health Department would update the public with numbers but would not individually announce each confirmed positive diagnosis. She said local health departments have the authority to decide for themselves how to release information about confirmed cases.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville has canceled classes for the rest of the week after several students reported contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus after traveling internationally. Vanderbilt has also canceled all in-person classes through at least the end of the month, moving to online instruction and other alternatives. It has canceled all non-athletic university-sponsored events and gatherings through April 30.
While some school systems nationwide are weighing whether to close to help protect against the spread of the virus, Knox County Schools has the relative advantage of being closed next week anyway, for spring break. KCS Public Affairs Director Carly Harrington said the school system plans to "intensify our cleaning and disinfecting efforts over spring break."
UT is also on spring break next week. In her email, Plowman said UT facilities crews would also use the week to “continue deep cleaning practices.”
U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett announced an online resource portal on his website, which features the now familiar refrain of infection prevention: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay home if you feel sick.
“Last week, Congress agreed on $8.3 billion in supplemental funding to respond to the Coronavirus in the United States and abroad,” Burchett said in a constituent newsletter. “This funding will be used to develop vaccines, increase access to testing and treatments, and allow people to remotely connect with their doctor through telemedicine. I voted in favor of this funding and President Trump signed it into law.”
The imminent Big Ears Festival, scheduled for March 26-29, was still on track to take place as of last night, but a statement on the festival website said organizers are aware of possible travelers’ concerns.
“The standard industry policy is that tickets are not refundable unless an event is canceled,” the statement said. “However, we recognize that this is an exceptional situation, and we do not want any one taking risks that would endanger their own health or that of others, so we will be discussing how we might modify this policy appropriately in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, the Health Department has met with organizations that provide services to the homeless and long-term care facilities. Buchanan said her staff has been working with Centro Hispano to reach the Latino population and noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has materials on its website in a variety of languages.
Buchanan said anyone who suspects they might have been exposed to COVID-19 should first go to their physician or a walk-in clinic. “We don’t want folks going to the ER unless they have a medical emergency,” she said.
Buchanan said testing is limited to people with symptoms who have traveled to places where there is community transmission or who have been in contact with people who have been diagnosed. People with pneumonia that has no known cause can be tested as well.
“We don’t have community spread,” Buchanan said. “You have to have gone somewhere to get exposed and brought it here. That will change.”