Knox County Confirms First Case of COVID-19

Martha Buchanan

Knox County Confirms First Case of COVID-19

Officials say there is still no local ‘community transmission,’ as the total number of cases in Tennessee doubles.

by jesse fox mayshark • March 13, 2020


martha buchanan, director of the Knox County Health department, briefed reporters thursday afternoon.

Knox County reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Thursday, becoming the fifth county in Tennessee to register the presence of the novel coronavirus that has rattled global markets and led to increasingly drastic public health measures here and abroad.

A local resident was exposed to the coronavirus overseas. They tested positive yesterday.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said Thursday afternoon that the confirmed case was a person who had just returned Monday from overseas travel and had immediately self-reported and gone into isolation.

“This is an isolated case, and the person has been a really cooperative patient and citizen who’s followed all the rules,” Buchanan said in a briefing. “And we’re really pleased that they did that, because that protects our community.”

It was one of nine new confirmed cases announced yesterday by the state Department of Health, doubling Tennessee’s total to 18 overnight. 

The announcement came in the midst of a day of ongoing cancellations of public events large and small, extending through the end of the month. The casualties ranged from this weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Knoxville to the City of Knoxville’s Neighborhood Conference scheduled for March 28. Jubilee Community Arts canceled all shows and events at the Laurel Theater for the remainder of the Spring season.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency in Tennessee, which he said would qualify the state for federal aid to deal with the anticipated impact of the new disease.

"Today’s action will move us into a position to utilize additional emergency funds as needed and relax provisions of certain laws to provide the flexibility needed to respond to this disease,”  Lee said in a statement.

A few hours after the Health Department’s announcement, Knox County Schools canceled school for today, which would have been the last day of classes before next week’s spring break. Carly Harrington, the school system’s director of public affairs, wrote in an email to parents, “Due to the latest public health developments and to get an early start on deep cleaning facilities, Knox County Schools will be closed on Friday, March 13, 2020.”

That came a day after the University of Tennessee announced that after its own spring break next week, classes will be conducted only online or via other remote means. On the Knoxville campus, that will last at least until April 3. Students living in residence halls, fraternities or sororities have been instructed not to return to campus after spring break until further notice, unless they have no other options.

Knoxville and Knox County officials have been preparing for a local infection for weeks. In statements, the city and county mayors urged residents to exercise caution but not to panic.

“Knox County has been preparing for the possibility of a case of COVID-19 since it was first reported in the United States,” said Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs in the news release announcing the first case. “Our Knox County Health Department is coordinating our response efforts and will continue to work to reduce the spread of infection and protect the health of all people in Knox County.”

In her own statement, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said, “The City of Knoxville has been preparing for a positive COVID-19 case in our area. At this time no city services are being impacted, but we are being cautious and evaluating the situation constantly.”

Kincannon said in a brief interview Thursday afternoon that she is encouraging employees to take common-sense precautions and to stay home if they’re sick. “We have paid sick leave for a reason, so use it,” she recounted telling employees.

Kincannon had paid a visit to the Fleet Services Department, where employees were diligently cleaning down surfaces and even wiping down the pencils they use. “People are taking this very seriously, and we will take this as seriously as possible,” she said.

Buchanan said that for reasons of medical privacy, she couldn’t give many details about the person infected with the virus, including gender, age or the country they had traveled to. But she said they had been tested in “a medical facility” and had not required hospitalization for their symptoms. She said state officials notified Knox County of the positive test result around 2:30 p.m. yesterday. 

“We don't have community transmission in Knox County right now,” Buchanan said. “We have an isolated case.”

“Community transmission” means people being infected by the virus locally without having traveled. Buchanan reiterated that that will probably happen, given the experience of other communities. 

As of yesterday, the state reported eight cases in Williamson County south of Nashville, six in Davidson County/Nashville, two in Memphis’ Shelby County, and one each in Knox and Sullivan counties. 

The state is providing daily updates to its website at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Buchanan said her department will provide Knox County updates as warranted.

She recited what has become the global public health mantra of recent months: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and stay home if you don’t feel well.

“At this point, our guidance does not change,” Buchanan said. “It continues to be one of watchful waiting and treating this illness with respect. It’s a serious illness.”

As of last night, according to an online map provided by the World Health Organization, there were 125,288 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 118 different countries and territories, with 4,614 deaths attributed to the disease.

The Knox County Health Department has set up a hotline for those with questions or concerns about COVID-19, including what to do if you think you may be infected. The number is 865-215-5555 or toll-free at 888-288-6022. The line is staffed 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.