Testing and Trusting

Krutch Park

Testing and Trusting

With cases steadily rising, streets are quiet while state and local officials focus on measuring the spread and blunting the impact of the novel coronavirus.

by scott barker • March 26, 2020
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Krutch Park in downtown Knoxville was almost empty Wednesday afternoon.

As residents adjusted to encountering shuttered stores, eating take-out dinners and embarking on scavenger hunts for toilet paper, the number of novel coronavirus cases in Knox County reached 20 on Wednesday.

Knox County cases caronavirus rise to 20, thought six patients have recovered enough to leave isolation.

Four patients have been hospitalized with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Six patients have recovered enough to leave isolation, according to the Knox County Health Department, leaving the number of active cases at 14.

When adjacent counties are added to Knox County’s total, the number of cases in the immediate Knoxville area increases to 36 — more than three times the number reported on Saturday.

The torrent of executive and emergency orders that have upended daily life in Knox County and across Tennessee has let up, at least temporarily, allowing residents to get their bearings.

“We are very early on the front end. We expect to see more cases,” Charity Menefee, director of communicable and environmental disease for the Health Department, said in the agency’s daily briefing.

With the coronavirus now spreading among people who are outside the initial at-risk groups, the Health Department is trying to piece together the pattern of infections. “Our focus continues to be on identification, isolation and contact tracing,” Menefee said.

Menefee said Health Department employees contact people who have tested positive for the coronavirus to reassure them and gather information. “People are scared when they find out they have this, and we want to talk to them, explain what the risk is, how they can help protect their family members in the home,” she said. 

The Health Department teams also collect information on people the patients have encountered and tell the people on that list to go into isolation, Menefee said.

Statewide, the Tennessee Department of Health reported a third death from COVID-19 and 784 presumed positive cases. Nashville remains the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Tennessee with 188, but the number of Shelby County cases have shot up to 117.

Seniors are most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. So far, four people 65 years old or older have tested positive for the coronavirus in Knox County. Statewide, nearly 18 percent of the positive tests came from Tennesseans 61 or older.

A substantial majority of cases in Tennessee — 61 percent — involve patients aged 21-50. Of Knox County’s 20 cases, 11 are 18-49 years old. 

Asked if those numbers indicate social distancing is or is not working, Menefee said, “I think we still need to see more data on this, and I think there’s time for these measures to take place because there’s an incubation period.” 

Nearly 11,800 people have been tested statewide, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. In Knox County, the number of people tested in both state and private labs stood at only 341.

The Knox County Health Department noted that not all private labs report negative results, so the actual number is higher. That’s because not all private labs use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Electronic Disease Surveillance System Base System.

At his daily news briefing in Nashville, Gov. Bill Lee said Tennessee is testing more people relative to its population than many surrounding states. “I believe it is one of the most important things we can do to blunt the severity of the onset and the surge in cases across Tennessee,” he said.

The state is setting up 35 coronavirus assessment sites throughout Tennessee, primarily outside urban areas. Lee has activated 250 Army and Air National Guard troops to help staff them.

“That includes a large contingent of medical specialists that ranges from medics all the way up to providers,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, Tennessee’s Military Commissioner. 

The rest, he said, are support troops that can perform a variety of functions. The Guard troops are in Smyrna undergoing mission-specific training in advance of deployment.

“We cannot afford to wait on the sidelines,” Holmes said. “We have to go big, we have to go early and we have to be there before the need arises, and we are doing exactly that.”

Though not designated for one of the state assessment sites, Knox County could see at least one drive-thru testing center established. “We are continuing to explore that with many, many partners,” Menefee said.

The county needs to amass more specimen collection supplies, including personal protective equipment that is in short supply across the nation, before that can happen. Menefee said, “We feel like we might be closer to that.”

Meanwhile, Health Department officials are encouraging people to take the measures outlined in the county’s Safer at Home order to slow the spread of infection — stay at home as much as possible and practice social distancing whenever in public.

“There’s a lot they can do to protect themselves, to protect their business and to protect their families,” Menefee said. “We go back to trusting the community to do the right thing.”