Pandemic Clouds Gather

Pandemic Clouds Gather

Federal officials visited Knoxville last week amid soaring COVID-19 case counts, rising death totals and a push for more contact tracers.

by scott barker • July 13, 2020
Charity Menefee of the Knox County Health Department briefs the media about the pandemic on Friday.

Knox County’s rising COVID-19 caseload prompted federal health officials to visit last week to see what the pandemic looks like on the ground in East Tennessee.

Nearly half of Knox County's confirmed cases since the pandemic began have hit in the past two weeks.

The interest from federal officials came amid other ominous signs about the local course of the pandemic.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services met with local public health officials last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

“It was very significant to know that our area was highlighted as an area of concern,” Charity Menefee, the Knox County Health Department’s director of communicable and environmental disease and emergency preparedness, said during a press briefing on Friday.

The federal officials offered guidance and support, and Menefee said they would advocate on behalf of Knox County with state and federal agencies. She said Knox County is one of 14 hotspots across the country to warrant a visit from the agencies in the past two weeks. 

An internal FEMA memo, as reported by ABC News, also identified Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga as cities where the pandemic is a concern.

“They did come because of seeing the rapid growth in cases in this area,” Menefee said. “That was a concern for them.”

Knox Numbers

Nearly half of Knox County’s total of 1,586 cases accumulated since March have been confirmed in the past two weeks. As of Sunday, Knox County had 714 active cases — 45 percent of the cumulative total. Another 56 Knox Countians have COVID-19 symptoms, though the illness hasn’t been confirmed through testing. The number of Knox Countians who have died from COVID-19 complications doubled last week to 10.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, Knox County averaged 11.18 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the 14-day period that ended Saturday. The state’s goal is 10 or fewer per 100,000 residents.

“We know COVID-19 is spreading in our community, we know it is sending people into the hospital and we know it’s tragically cutting short the lives of some in our community,” Menefee said. “I think we can agree on these three things.”

The Health Department has temporarily stopped reporting hospitalization numbers for Knox Countians because of issues with reporting the data, Menefee said. As of Thursday, she said, 84 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 complications in 19 hospitals throughout the 16-county region centered on Knoxville.

The number of new cases most likely doesn’t reflect any impact from Knox County’s mandate to wear masks in buildings open to the public, which took effect July 3. Given COVID-19’s two-week incubation period, Menefee said, it’s too early to gauge the mandate’s effectiveness.

“We really hope and we really want it to make a difference in those case numbers,” she said.

According to the Health Department, officials have received 111 complaints regarding mask compliance at food establishments and 94 complaints about at non-food establishments. Other complaints have come in through the city’s 3-1-1 call center. 

The Health Department has contacted businesses it regulates, such as restaurants, while relaying information about other alleged violations to the city or another county office, as appropriate, Menefee said. 

Sheriff Tom Spangler has questioned the constitutionality of the mask mandate and said he would not enforce it. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the constitutionality of public health orders since a Massachusetts case in 1905.

Call for Volunteers

On Friday, the Health Department sent out a call for volunteers affiliated with the University of Tennessee College of Social Work to help with contact tracing, the detective work to identify people who have had close encounters with patients who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Health Department officials have said they are expanding the contact tracing team in anticipation of more cases that threaten to strain resources. Contact tracing is a key to rapidly responding to rising case counts and increasing the testing of people at risk of infection.

Carrie Thomas, division director of workforce development for the Health Department, put out the call on the College of Social Work’s Facebook page. “Social workers are well situated to assist with the skills needed for contract tracing,” she wrote.

The post contains a link to the state’s Medical Reserve Corps, where professionals can sign up to volunteer for the pandemic response.

The request was issued as the Health Department has more than tripled the number of employees involved in contact tracing and is gearing up to use federal COVID-19 funding to hire private contractors to help as well.

As of last Wednesday, the Health Department had been able to initiate contact tracing of all Knox County patients within 24 hours of being notified of a positive test result. Used as a benchmark for progress combating the pandemic, the contact tracing initiation-time data won’t be publicly updated until Wednesday.