Tracking COVID-19

Daily Tracker collage

Tracking COVID-19

A compilation of Daily Tracker items from our weekday subscriber email, organized chronologically.

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark

Image
Image

(These are coronavirus-related items originally published in the Daily Tracker section of our email newsletter, sent to subscribers every weekday. Some of them included links that have been disabled by the reformatting.)

Feb. 26, 2020

China's coronavirus outbreak is affecting East Tennessee companies that do business overseas, according to Elizabeth Rowland, executive director of the TN-China Network.

Rowland, whose nonprofit organization promotes trade and investment between the Volunteer State and the world's most populous country, told Knox County commissioners at their monthly meeting Monday that some local manufacturers are seeing suppliers temporarily shuttered. She said the start of the outbreak coincided with the Chinese New Year holiday, when factories shut down for a month anyway.

"The impact is blunted a little as a result," Rowland said. "Instead of having two or three months down, we've only had one or two months down so far."

The duration and spread of the outbreak will determine its economic impact. Rowland said many companies are coming up to their deadlines for Christmas orders, so manufacturing slowdowns now could be felt in December.

"This crisis is very likely going to impact what's on the shelves during our shopping season for Christmas," Rowland said.

She also urged sensitivity toward Chinese residents and visitors. She noted that many people in China wear face masks to protect against air pollution.

"Just because a Chinese person here has on a mask does not mean they have coronavirus," Rowland said. "We have to remember not to treat our Chinese neighbors or our Chinese-American neighbors badly just because they might be wearing a mask or they happen to be Chinese."

Feb. 28, 2020

The coronavirus — or COVID-19 — is still some distance from the borders of Knox County, at least as of the most recent reports. But local healthcare, education and government institutions are preparing for the possibility of local infections.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said her office is working with the county school system and other agencies to make sure everyone is up to speed on their infectious disease protocols.

"We're supporting them to pull that out and brush it up and make sure it's up to date," Buchanan said this week.

Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control have urged school systems to be alert for possible signs of infection and make contingency plans for dismissals and school closure if it becomes necessary. A New York Times article yesterday focused on the potential educational impact if a pandemic closed schools for long periods. One possibility is remote online instruction, but that comes with concerns about access.

Carly Harrington, public affairs director for Knox County Schools, said in an email, "We have the capacity to deliver limited instruction remotely; however, we do have concerns about equity of access. In the event of a long-term closure, we would rely on guidance from the state Department of Education."

Superintendent Bob Thomas sent an email to parents yesterday evening assuring them that the school system is "having ongoing discussions" to prepare for the possibility of a local reported infection. The University of Tennessee gave similar assurances.

Area hospitals are keeping an eye on the coronavirus situation worldwide and reviewing pandemic protocols already in place.

“Our medical professionals have been trained to properly identify any patients who may have contagious illnesses that could be considered a threat to public health,” Covenant Health spokeswoman Teresa Gross said in a statement. “We have protocols in place to assure that patients who may have infectious diseases receive appropriate screenings and care, while protecting the health and safety of other patients and staff.”

Tony Benton, CEO of Tennova Healthcare — East Tennessee Market, said healthcare professionals are drawing on the experience of previous outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as Ebola in West Africa in 2014-2016. For example, he said, “The Ebola pathology was more acute. The transmission of the coronavirus is more aggressive, so preparation and protocols are important.”

Dr. Mark Rasnake, an infectious disease physician at University of Tennessee Medical Center, said providers will be prepared if the spread of the coronavirus turns into a genuine pandemic. “Panic is not warranted, but planning and concern certainly is warranted,” he said. “It’s too early to tell how bad it will be in the United States.”

March 6, 2020

Speaking of COVID-19, this is an uncertain time to be planning a major event, like a music festival that draws artists and visitors from all over the country and world. That's the situation of the Big Ears Festival, which will be held March 26-29 at venues across Knoxville.

"We’re certainly monitoring the situation," said Big Ears founder Ashley Capps. "With this and with any event that we do, people’s safety is our number one concern."

He said he's been getting calls from people who are planning on coming.

"Most of it’s been, ‘I hope the show’s going on, I hope there are no plans to cancel the festival.’ They’re looking to me to verify that we have no plans to cancel the festival," Capps said.

"And at this point, we don’t. It’s full speed ahead, we’re all-in planning for the weekend and we can’t dilute our focus now because there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then."

Headliners for this year's event include Patti Smith, Anthony Braxton, Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley.

----------

And if you’re ready for good news on the coronavirus front, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have identified compounds that might lead to the development of a vaccine.

Jeremy C. Smith, Governor’s Chair at the University of Tennessee and director of the UT/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics, and postdoctoral researcher Micholas Smith used the lab’s Summit supercomputer to run simulations analyzing more than 8,000 small-molecule drug compounds. The pair found 77 compounds most likely to bind to the main “spike” protein of the coronavirus, rendering it unable to infect host cells.

The 77 promising compounds must be tested to determine whether they can be used to combat the coronavirus, but the researchers said Summit reduced the amount of time to identify the promising compounds from months to a couple of days.

“Our results don’t mean that we have found a cure or treatment for the Wuhan coronavirus,” Jeremy Smith said. “We are very hopeful, though, that our computational findings will both inform future studies and provide a framework that experimentalists will use to further investigate these compounds. Only then will we know whether any of them exhibit the characteristics needed to mitigate this virus.”

The researchers published their findings on ChemRxiv.

March 9, 2020

The Knox County Republican Party's keynote speaker for its May 22 Lincoln Day Dinner made some headlines this weekend. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla, has made a name for himself as one of President Donald Trump's fiercest defenders in Congress — often in colorful ways.

Last week, he made news when he wore a gas mask on the floor of Congress during a budget vote, seemingly mocking concern about the spreading coronavirus. In a follow-up interview with the New York Post, he encouraged college students not to cancel their spring break plans, saying, "In my experience, the things that you consume on spring break will typically kill the coronavirus.”

But on Friday, Gaetz announced that a resident of his Panhandle district — rated as the most Republican in Florida — had been killed by the virus. The internet was not kind to him.

Knox County GOP Chair Randy Pace said of the gas mask incident in an email Sunday, "I cannot speak for the Congressman nor have I spoken to him about it. Given the chance this would not be at the top of my list of things to discuss with him when he comes to Knoxville."

He said he hoped to instead hear Gaetz's impressions of the country's fiscal situation. "I think young men like him and others must prepare for the failure of previous administrations to require that government live within its means," Pace said.

March 12, 2020

The Tennessee Legislature will not engage in social distancing, at least for now.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, yesterday asked House Speaker Cameron Sexton to temporarily adjourn the House of Representatives as officials grapple with COVID-19 . In a letter to the Crossville Republican, Clemmons wrote that he knew of "nothing so pressing before the legislature" worth the health risks of convening, according to the Tennessean.

Sexton said he’s inclined to continue meeting, however. “Any member of the General Assembly who wishes to stay home certainly can,” he said in a statement.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, also said the Legislature should continue its work. McNally has said the leadership is aiming to wrap up the General Assembly in mid to late April.

As of late Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported nine confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee. Seven live in the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area.

----------

During the discussion of COVID-19 by UT researchers yesterday, Barry Rouse, a distinguished professor in genome and science technology, paid tribute to a former colleague with a rare distinction: David A. Brian, a professor in UT's College of Veterinary Medicine, was part of the team of scientists that studied and named the coronavirus. Brian helped map out how the virus replicates.

The name comes from protein spikes that stud the spherical virus, which under an electron microscope give it the appearance of a halo-like corona. Brian died in 2014, and Rouse said he wanted to make sure his friend's contributions were remembered. "We here at the University of Tennessee should be proud of the fact that one of our former colleagues was one of the guys who coined the name coronavirus," Rouse said.

March 13, 2020

Today marks the eighth day Knox County Schools have closed this winter, out of 10 the school system sets aside for weather and other contingencies. Although those days are often colloquially referred to as "snow days," snow is the one thing that hasn't closed the district's schools so far this year.

In January, a wave of flu and other illnesses shuttered the system for three days. In February, it was four days of heavy rain and the potential of flooding that kept buses off the roads. And now Knox County students have their first-ever COVID-19 day.

----------

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander single-handedly blocked a Democratic bill to mandate that employers provide 14 days of paid family leave during medical crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Hill.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, attempted to pass her bill with unanimous consent, but Alexander was able to stop it on Wednesday without assistance because under Senate rules, a lone member can halt the maneuver.

"The idea of paid sick leave is a good idea. But if Washington, D.C., thinks it's a good idea, Washington, D.C., should pay for it," Alexander, the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said from the Senate floor.

Murray, whose state has been hard hit by COVID-19, and other Democrats are concerned that employees without paid leave would try to work while sick. The Hill reported Alexander said he would work with Murray on other legislation related to COVID-19.

March 16, 2020

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville, was among 40 House Republicans who voted against the coronavirus relief bill that passed overwhelmingly late Friday night. The bill had the support of the Trump administration, after long negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and provides free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave for some workers, and added support for food assistance and those on unemployment. But the president's endorsement wasn't enough for some conservative representatives, many of them members of the chamber's Freedom Caucus.

In a statement, Burchett expressed frustration with the scope of the bill and the hurried way he said it was presented. He called it "loaded with way too much big government pork" and decried it as an "expansion of welfare." His opponent in this November's election, Democrat Renee Hoyos, promptly assailed him for the vote.

The bill is scheduled for a Senate vote this week. If it passes, it will go to President Trump for his signature.

----------

Knox County Schools are on spring break this week, buying administrators some time to assess the evolving coronavirus situation. But local parents and teachers are already anticipating a possible extension of school closures. Many school systems across the country — including the largest, New York City — have closed to try to contain the spread of the virus.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose initial handling of the outbreak has come under criticism, issued new guidance on Sunday recommending that all events or gatherings of more than 50 people be suspended for the next eight weeks. The CDC said the guidance does not apply to "the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses," but it may be hard for school leaders to ignore completely.

The U.S. Department of Education has said that it will consider one-year waivers from annual federal testing requirements for schools facing extended closures for virus-related concerns.

----------

Comedians, both professional and decidedly amateur, have made jokes about Americans’ hoarding toilet paper during these early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Knoxvillians are not immune. On Saturday afternoon, nary a roll was to be found at the Publix in University Commons, the Kroger in Broadway Shopping Center or the Kroger in Fountain City. Locals on Facebook reported empty shelves across Knox County.

The Conversation, a website that aims to marry academic research with journalism, has devoted two stories to the phenomenon.

Economist Jay Sagorsky pointed out in The Conversation that it doesn’t make sense economically. Toilet paper is plentiful. More than 90 percent of the rolls used in the United States are made in the United States — there are nearly 150 companies that make toilet paper in the country (Resolute Tissue operates a large production facility just down the Interstate 75 in Calhoun, Tenn.). Most of the rest comes from Canada and Mexico.

However, Sagorsky wrote, hoarding toilet paper makes people feel secure. “This is an example of ‘zero risk bias,’ in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount,” he wrote.

Toilet paper hoarding hasn’t been confined to the United States. Japan, Australia and New Zealand have seen bulk buying too, and it has prompted a reaction from Australia’s academics.

“Toilet paper symbolizes control,” said Niki Edwards of the Queensland University of Technology.

David Savage of the Newcastle Business School at the University of Newcastle called it toilet paper a perfect product — completely non-perishable and guaranteed to be used, eventually.

Brian Cook of the University of Melbourne called toilet paper cheap and pragmatic. “A lot of people likely also use toilet paper as a tissue,” he said, “and therefore imagine themselves needing a lot if they have the flu or a flu-like illness.”

And people have joked about toilet paper hoarding before. Sagorsky noted that comedian and talk show host Johnny Carson sparked a run on toilet paper during the oil embargo of 1973 with a wisecrack he made about a rumored shortage on The Tonight Show.

----------

On a more somber note, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, and other healthcare officials have continued to warn that it's only a matter of time before more cases of COVID-19 are diagnosed in Knox County. In addition to health departments, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, hospice care providers are mobilizing to respond to COVID-19, a grim reminder of what is at stake.

Norman McRae, founder of Knoxville-based hospice care provider Caris Healthcare, was among a group of healthcare executives that met with Vice President Mike Pence and other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force last week to discuss support policy measures. McRae serves on the board of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

According to a news release, hospice representatives emphasized how hospice and palliative care organizations are in a position to meet the needs of patients at higher risk for COVID-19 and limiting transmission of the virus by moving patients to their preferred setting of care.

“I’m proud that our nursing home and hospice leadership came together to be part of the ongoing solution,” McRae said in the statement.

March 17, 2020

Area hospital executives say they have plans in place to handle an expected surge in patients with COVID-19, but given the opportunity on Monday did not offer specifics about how they might free up beds or any other measures they could take.

The Knox County Health Department held a briefing that included medical officers from Covenant Health, Tennova Healthcare, University of Tennessee Medical Center, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and Summit Medical Group.

The United States has about 924,107 hospital beds and 97,776 intensive care beds, according to a 2018 American Hospital Association survey cited in the Washington Post on Sunday.

A USA TODAY report cited an estimate from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security that as many as 9.6 million Americans will need to be hospitalized, with one-third of those requiring intensive care. At typical levels of patients hospitalized for other reasons, that could mean as many as 17 coronavirus patients for each available bed, the USA TODAY analysis found.

With news reports from Italy about overflowing hospitals turning away patients, the Post wrote, healthcare providers across the country are scrambling to make room for a wave of new patients. New York-Presbyterian, a large provider in the nation’s largest city, suspended elective surgery on Saturday to focus on freeing up space for coronavirus patients. MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia is making plans to discharge non-coronavirus patients early.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said flattening the curve in the now-familiar graph of possible infections — spreading out those who are infected over time, in other words — is key to keeping patient numbers at a manageable level.

Asked if local hospitals have enough beds for an anticipated number of coronavirus patients and if they planned to stop elective surgeries temporarily or take other steps to open beds, officials sidestepped the answer for the most part.

Dr. James Shamiyeh, chief quality officer at UT Medical Center, said staff at the area’s trauma center meet daily to plan for various scenarios. “There may be staff and beds we use in other ways we don’t traditionally use,” he said.

Dr. Mark Browne, vice president and chief medical officer for Covenant Health, did not address beds at all in his response. He said limiting visitation is needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to patients and staff alike.

----------

Like a lot of institutions, the Tennessee General Assembly has gone through an evolving series of positions on dealing with coronavirus concerns. Last week, House Speaker Cameron Sexton was somewhat dismissive of proposals for a temporary adjournment. But by the end of the week, the Legislature had decided to exclude the public and all visitors — including lobbyists — from the remainder of its session, to limit exposure

Monday, as legislators met in nearly empty rooms, Gov. Bill Lee, Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally issued a joint statement calling for a rapid legislative exit. The plan is to quickly pass a budget — the Legislature's primary constitutional duty — and then go into recess. That would leave a great many bills hanging in the air, suspended between committees or chambers. The Legislature could return later in the year to finish the session, although the statement left that vague. A second session would eat into campaign time for incumbents up for re-election.

"This is a serious time for our state and country, and we all must make adjustments in response to this threat," the three Republican leaders said in the statement.

----------

Law enforcement officers can’t practice social distancing like the general public, so the possibility of exposure to the coronavirus has become another on-the-job hazard.

The Knoxville Police Department is taking steps to reduce the risk, however. KPD Communications Manager Scott Erland wrote in an emailed response to Compass’ queries that the department is following health agencies’ guidelines by avoiding close contact with people who are sick and minimizing contact in general to reduce the possibility of communal spread.

“In an effort to limit person-to-person contact as much as possible, calls will be monitored closely by patrol supervisors,” Erland wrote. “The onus will be on those supervisors to screen the calls that require an immediate response (i.e. emergency, threat of violence possible, in-progress calls, etc.) versus those that can be handled remotely through Teleserve or callbacks.”

Erland said 911 operators are screening for symptomatic callers as well. Civilian employees have not been asked to work from home, but KPD is trying to eliminate large gatherings of personnel. Everyone has been told to stay home if they’re sick.

“Additionally, officers are outfitted with recommended personal protective equipment and will go through exposure protocol if they are suspected of being potentially exposed to the virus,” Erland said.

Municipal Court, which shares the Safety Building with KPD, will not be in session through March 31. The court offices remain open, however, so people can pay the fines for citations police will still be writing.

----------

At the direction of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Knox County courts have temporarily suspended most in-person courtroom hearings, but Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond said Monday the courts are still open. Judges are in their chambers working, and some cases continue to be heard.

"The judges are going to hear jail cases, they're going to hear cases that need to be heard, for instance orders of protection," Hammond said. He emphasized that no one will be kept in jail longer than they should for lack of access to a judge.

But for less-pressing cases, Hammond said judges are getting in touch with attorneys to try to postpone and reschedule court hearings for sometime in the less-restrictive future.

----------

Air travel is taking a hit because of precautions businesses and individuals are taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but falling gas prices could entice them to take to the roadways.

Steady declines in domestic crude oil prices has led to lower gas prices.
“In Tennessee, the state average per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline has dropped 12 cents since last Monday to $2.04 — that’s 17 cents less than one month ago and 31 cents less than what we were seeing at this time last year,” said Megan Cooper, a spokeswoman for AAA in Tennessee.

The average price per gallon in Knoxville was $2.06 per gallon, according to AAA’s daily gas price update. Thirty-two of the state’s 95 counties had already fallen below $2 per gallon as of Monday, with Henry County reporting the lowest — $1.72 per gallon.

Cooper predicted that prices would remain low as long as fears about the spread of COVID-19 persist. “It’s very likely that the statewide average could drop below $2 per gallon by the end of the week,” she said.

Of course, motorists still would have to decide on a destination. COVID-19 cases have been reported in every state except West Virginia. The New River Gorge is spectacular.

March 18, 2020

Knox County Schools might be closed through April 3 because of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean children will have to go without meals.

The district will be providing breakfast and lunch to any child 18 and under at no charge during the hiatus. Federal regulations prevent food distribution during scheduled closures such as spring break, so meals will be available at 25 designated emergency school feeding sites throughout the county beginning next Monday, March 23.

The meals will be distributed at 10 a.m.-noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Students will get breakfast and lunch (both meals at the same time) for two days on Mondays and Wednesdays, and breakfast and lunch for one day on Friday.

Children are supposed to take the meals home and won’t have the option to eat at the school. The sites, near the main entrance of each designated school, are drive-thru or walk-up. Children must be present, and no extra meals will be provided for siblings or others who do not go to the sites.

Families may pick up the meals at any distribution site, regardless of whether their children are enrolled there. No proof of income is required.

You can find a list of distribution sites and more information related to the extended closure here.

----------

It looks like Tennessee school systems might get some relief from state testing requirements this year. As Chalkbeat reported yesterday, top Republican legislators are proposing legislation that would cancel this year's TNReady tests for grades 3-8 and end-of-course assessments for high school students. Portfolio evaluations for younger students would also be scrapped.

The emergency bill is a response to the uncertainty around when Tennessee children will be able to go back to school and how much can be reasonably accomplished and tested by the end of the year. On Monday, Gov. Bill Lee urged schools across the state to close at least through March 31 to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

If the end-of-year tests are scrapped, probably few teachers and fewer students would be upset. It would mark another bumpy year in the ongoing attempt to implement statewide testing consistently and competently. The testing proposal is intended to be voted on this week before the Legislature goes on a COVID-19-inspired recess.

March 19, 2020

Tennessee teachers are already paying the cost of the pandemic, in the form of a smaller raise from the state. As Chalkbeat reported yesterday, Gov. Bill Lee dramatically cut his proposed spending for education in the rush to get a budget approved so the Legislature can go into recess.

The $400 million in reductions include cutting in half the amount Lee had proposed to go into raises for teachers, for a raise of 2 percent rather than 4 percent. Also gone is $250 million in new funding for student mental health services. The Lee administration said it needs to keep more funds than expected in reserve to address the impact of the coronavirus.

Chalkbeat quotes Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, saying, "This proposed budget ensures Tennessee will be in a posture to respond to the fallout and provide the essential services all Tennesseans count on.”

----------

One question that keeps coming up in reporting on COVID-19 is whether the United States has enough hospital beds to treat those who will get seriously ill from the novel coronavirus.

That’s one of the reasons officials have emphasized the need to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 — if cases are spread over a longer period of time, the healthcare system might not be overwhelmed by the volume of patients.

ProPublica, the nonprofit newsroom specializing in in-depth reporting, used data from the Harvard Global Health Institute to assess whether hospitals in communities across the country have enough beds under various scenarios. The results are sobering for the nation and for Knoxville.

The analysis for the Knoxville region is based on 3,190 total beds, the total in 2018. Of those, 300 were in intensive care units. The analysis assumes the 62 percent bed occupancy rate from 2018 holds steady.

In the moderate scenario, where 40 percent of the Knoxville area population is infected over a 12-month period, area hospitals would need 2.6 times the number of existing beds. Only 74 ICU beds would be available for severe cases.

Knoxville would have enough beds to handle the influx of cases without expanding their number only under the best-case scenario — 20 percent of the population infected over an 18-month period. The worst-case scenario, which would involve 60 percent of the population infected within six months, would require a 350 percent increase in the number of available beds.

At a press conference earlier this week, local hospital executives said they have plans in place to free up more beds, but avoided giving specific information about what those plans entail.

----------

United Way of Greater Knoxville has launched a COVID-19 Response Fund, aiming to raise $50,000 for nonprofit organizations serving people affected in various ways by the disease and its economic effects. You can donate online.

----------

The past few days have been so rife with closures and cancellations that it has been impossible to track them all. But three caught our eye for what they say about how quickly daily life has changed.

West Town Mall: The mall announced yesterday afternoon that it is closed effective today until March 29. A visit to the mercantile mainstay a few hours before that announcement showed a center (pictured above) that seemed mostly closed already. Many stores were shuttered, and the crowd was unusually sparse.

Bonnaroo: The annual music festival in Manchester, Tenn., co-founded by Knoxville's A.C. Entertainment, has always been a summer phenomenon. But Tuesday, Live Nation (which now owns A.C. Entertainment) announced that the 19th annual edition will be postponed from mid-June to the last weekend in September. All existing tickets for the sold-out weekend will be honored. It was unclear whether the festival will still feature the same roster of artists, with headliners including Lizzo, Tool and Vampire Weekend.

Knox County Commission: Maybe not on the same level of popularity as the mall and music festivals — unless you really love Chairman Hugh Nystrom's puns — County Commission meetings are nonetheless significant. So it is also significant that Nystrom wrote his Commission colleagues this week to tell them he was canceling the monthly work session scheduled for next Monday, March 23. As for the regular monthly meeting on March 30, Nystrom said he was reviewing the agenda to pare it back to items essential to keep the county functioning. "Suffice to say that any items that are not essential to operations will be postponed," he wrote. He also said he was looking into teleconferencing options for possible use in the future.

March 20, 2020

When the state’s novel coronavirus website was updated with new numbers at 3 p.m. yesterday, some new information was included.

The totals were there, of course: 154 positive test results, up from 98 on Wednesday. The state’s lab had conducted 497 tests, with 33 testing positive. Private labs have reported 121 positive tests. No one in Tennessee has died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Knox County didn’t report any new positive results. The bulk of the state’s cases continue to be found in and around Nashville — Davidson and Williamson counties account for 105 cases, more than two-thirds of the total.

New categories on the site raise more questions than answers, however. In addition to counties of origin, two new categories were included — “Unknown,” with one reported case, and “Residents of Other States/Countries,” which had 26 positive tests reported. According to the website, the latter are people from outside Tennessee who tested positive at a Tennessee healthcare facility.

The website does not indicate where those cases originated, which skews the public's understanding of the coronavirus' geographic distribution. Based on the limited explanation, they could be anywhere in the state — Memphis, Nashville, Bucksnort or even Knoxville.

The state website puts a cloud of mystery around Anderson County’s first positive test. The News Sentinel reported that the Anderson County Health Department and Mayor Terry Frank announced the positive test yesterday and said the patient is in self-isolation.

“The Anderson County Health Department cannot release any further information about the patient, including a more precise location within Anderson County,” Frank said in a press release.

The state’s website doesn’t list a case in Anderson County, so it’s unclear whether the patient is an Anderson County resident or one of the “Residents of Other States/Countries” as designated by the state.

----------

Speaking of testing, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said at her regularly scheduled biweekly news briefing on Thursday that the fact private laboratories don’t have to report the number of tests they conduct isn’t material to combating the coronavirus.

The state’s lab has recorded roughly one positive result for every 15 tests conducted. The ratio for positives at private labs can’t be determined with the publicly available information.

“We don’t need the information on the negative tests to do our jobs,” Buchanan said.

Other states report testing numbers from private labs. North Carolina, for example, has 97 positive results from 2,505 tests conducted at both state and private labs, a ratio of 1:25.8. In New York state, expanded testing uncovered more than 2,200 new cases, the New York Times reported.

A bigger concern, according to Buchanan, is healthcare providers procuring enough protective gear relative to the expected influx of patients. It’s a problem nationwide and one local hospitals are grappling with as well.

“They’re working together to make sure the hospitals have supplies,” she said.

----------

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon declared a state of emergency in response to the coronavirus threat on Monday, but Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs hasn’t followed suit.

Cities and counties have broad powers under emergency declarations, according to state law. One benefit is that mayors don’t have to get permission from their legislative bodies to spend money in times of crisis.

In health crises, a county's chief health officer has similar powers. “Under public health law, I have the authority to take certain actions,” Buchanan said, including ordering businesses to close.

Rob Link, Jacobs’ communications director, said the mayor would defer to Buchanan. “Right now, he has no intention of issuing a state of emergency,” Link said. “Dr. Buchanan has the full support of Mayor Jacobs.”

----------

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett announced he will hold a telephone town hall on COVID-19 at 3:35 p.m. today.

He’ll be joined by a representative from the Tennessee Department of Health to talk about the coronavirus and to answer questions about how to stay healthy and receive assistance.

Burchett, who voted against a Coronavirus relief bill that he later said was improved by Senate Republicans, will also discuss actions being taken to address the pandemic.

“The Coronavirus pandemic is real and impacting communities across East Tennessee. It is extremely important folks are fully aware of what is going on and how to get help if they need it,” Burchett said in a statement announcing the virtual town hall.

Constituents can participate in the event by signing up here.

----------

The state Legislature yesterday approved bills endorsed by Gov. Bill Lee that will exempt Tennessee schools from end-of-year TNReady testing and will waive the requirement that they stay in session for 180 days of instruction.

The measures will protect students, schools and teachers from being evaluated on the basis of tests that they might not have time to either administer or prepare for. They will also allay the growing fear among Tennessee kids that they will have to go to summer school to make up for the time they're missing this spring. Also taken into consideration are this year's seniors, who will be able to graduate with a full diploma even if their classes are canceled. The Class of 2020 will have stories to tell at their reunions.

----------

Here's another creative way to help Knoxville's struggling service industry: the Service Industry Tips website, which connects you directly to bartenders and baristas at local bars and restaurants. Servers enter their information, including links to their Venmo or CashApp accounts, and the idea is that every time you make yourself a drink at home, you click on the site and it randomly assigns you a bartender to tip.

March 23, 2020

Knoxville City Council is planning to meet as scheduled on Tuesday, though Gov. Bill Lee has issued an executive order that seems to allow public meetings to be held without in-person public access during the coronavirus crisis.

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie said on Sunday the city doesn’t yet have the technical capabilities — though they’re working on it — that would allow remote meetings. As a result, this week’s meeting will be held as scheduled at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building, though social distancing measures will be in place. Council members will meet as the Beer Board at 5 p.m. in the same location.

“I’m anticipating after this meeting we’ll go to remote meetings,” McKenzie said.

Lee’s executive order, issued Friday amid a blizzard of such orders from every level of government and valid until 1:01 a.m. May 18, allows governing bodies to meet without in-person public attendance — including ones conducted with members in remote locations — as long as the meetings “remain open and accessible to public attendance by electronic means.”

A governing body must make efforts to present the meeting live to the public, but if that’s not practicable must provide an audio or video recording within two days. Rules governing public notice, quorums and other requirements remain in place, and the executive order outlines other procedures that must be followed.

In a blog posting, Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said the transparency advocacy group is pleased with the order. She wrote that the order allows governments to operate but contains safeguards for the public, though she said TCOG would monitor compliance.

“The order issued by Gov. Bill Lee offers the clear guidance needed as we move into unchartered territory,” Fisher wrote.

City Council meetings are televised live on Community TV (Channel 12 on Comcast, and online at ctvknox.org), which appears on its face to meet the order’s requirements.

If Council proceeds with the meeting as planned, only Mayor Indya Kincannon and the nine Council members will sit on the dais, spreading out to provide ample space between them. City staff members who usually occupy seats on the dais will be scattered throughout the auditorium seating.

The agenda is fairly light. McKenzie said the public should watch on Community TV instead of attending in person.

----------

Other public meetings could get canceled this week. Kincannon has scheduled public budget hearings, and her administration has yet to announce their cancellation.

The hearings, scheduled for Wednesday-Friday in Room 461 of the City County Building, offer an opportunity for department heads to make their cases for desired funding as part of the budget process. The meetings aren't for members of a voting body and so aren't legally required to be public, though mayors have opened them up for years.

Meanwhile, the Knox County Charter Review Committee has canceled all meetings until further notice.

----------

The announcement yesterday that a staff member on the University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus has tested positive for the novel coronavirus will probably amplify demands made Friday by United Campus Workers. The union of university staff and faculty members urged administrators to take care of all of their workers, including having full safety plans for those required to remain on campus.

"While certain faculty, graduate students, and staff members will be able to work from home, others do not have that option," the UCW said in a release. "Additionally, with school districts across the state closing, employees who do not have access to child care are left with few options but to take personal leave, if it is available. Similarly, staff who are immunocompromised but lack leave time will be forced to come to campus."

The group included a list of recommendations, starting with a virtual town hall meeting with administrators and staff "to respond to questions and concerns from frontline workers."

March 24, 2020

Government offices were deemed essential services by the Health Department's order yesterday, leaving them to decide for themselves how best to protect their employees while serving the public. A quick survey showed varied approaches, with most in the process of reducing office staff and public access.

Knox County general government has gone from mostly not allowing work-at-home arrangements just a week ago to encouraging them when possible. "Each Senior Director has identified what staff is needed for the day-to-day operation of their department," said Rob Link, communications director for County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. "Everyone else is encouraged to work from home if they’re able."

Just down the hall in the Law Department, County Law Director Bud Armstrong said most of his staff attorneys are working from home — a decision made easier because civil courts aren't hearing any cases for the time being anyway.

County Clerk Sherry Witt and Trustee Ed Shouse announced over the weekend that their satellite offices would close as of this week. Shouse said yesterday he's had some employees working from home, and he plans to close his main office to the public today. Foot traffic is already down considerably — as of mid-afternoon Monday, Shouse said only three people had come in. And the office is past its big annual deadline, the March 1 cutoff to pay county property taxes. "Ninety-seven percent of the people have paid their taxes already," Shouse said. All of the Clerk and Trustee's online services remain available.

Register of Deeds Nick McBride has likewise sent most of his staff to work from home, but he promised his office will continue to process mortgage and loan documents through whatever may come. "If we shut down, this economy will stop," he said. It hasn't yet — last week, even amid rising coronavirus concerns, McBride logged 286 property transfers worth $75 million, and 460 loans worth $110 million.

At the other end of Market Street, the Tennessee Valley Authority has issued a mandatory "telework" order to take effect this Wednesday. All employees and support staff not involved in "mission critical" work — power production and maintenance, flood control — are to work from home. TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said telework has been voluntary since last week and many employees are already doing it. By Wednesday, he estimated there would be 2,000-3,000 TVA employees working from home. "This is something TVA has planned for for a long time," Hopson said. "Our ability to work remotely has been tested before, although probably not to this level."

----------

City Council will hold its first-ever remote electronic meeting this evening, convening at 6 p.m. over Zoom, the video conferencing software.

Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order last Friday allowing remote electronic meetings during the coronavirus crisis. Public bodies still must adhere to the state’s Open Meetings Act, though the order modified some rules to allow meetings to take place. Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson also provided guidance.

Council members gave the system a trial run yesterday, with City Recorder Will Johnson taking on the role of instructor. Most members were unfamiliar with Zoom, and it took a little time for some of them to figure out which icons to select for certain functions.

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie said Council could hold meetings via Zoom as long as the coronavirus crisis continues. “We’ll all be Zoom experts before this is over with,” she said.

There are some kinks to work out, like how to conduct the public forum portion of the meeting when members of the public can address Council members on any topic they choose.

As usual, Community TV will broadcast the proceedings. The Beer Board meeting, scheduled for 5 p.m., has been canceled.

----------

Knox County Schools had no classes in session yesterday, with spring break extended at least to April 3. But school employees did successfully launch their emergency meal program, which is open to any child age 18 or younger. The school system is distributing pre-packed breakfasts and lunches for pick-up at 25 school sites from 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for the duration of the closure. There is no income qualification.

Carly Harrington, the system's public affairs director, said on Monday a total of 3,905 students picked up the bags, which each held two breakfasts and two lunches, for a total of 15,620 meals.

----------

The statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic assumed a military bearing yesterday as Gov. Bill Lee established the COVID-19 Unified Command.

Finance and Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter will command the effort to streamline coordination among the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and the Department of Military.

McWhorter appointed retired Brig. Gen. Scott Brower as his chief of staff. Others in the command are TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, and Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, adjutant general of the Department of Military.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Air National Guard has already joined the fight. Last week an Air Guard C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft delivered 500,000 swabs to be added to COVID-19 test kits in Memphis.

Ambulance crews are on the front lines of the coronavirus battle along with physicians, nurses and other hospital workers. Joshua Spencer, southeast regional director for AMR, the county’s ambulance service contractor, gave officials an update recently on the company’s actions during the crisis.

“We have developed guidelines that are specific to this virus and are updating them as the evidence evolves and practice recommendations change,” Spencer wrote.

AMR has suspended staffing public events (which for now are capped at 10 people in Knox County) and is requiring that all employees fill out a health questionnaire and have their temperature taken at the beginning of every shift.

The company has also added new decontamination procedures to post-transport cleaning routines. Spencer wrote that crews are trained to properly use protective equipment and to identify patients who might be infected with the coronavirus.

Among other initiatives, AMR is planning for possible attrition among its workforce. “We continue to hire and train new personnel so if any of our people get sick we will have others ready to step in,” Spencer wrote.