Feds: Statewide Mask Mandate Needed

Feds: Statewide Mask Mandate Needed

A team of federal health officials says a lack of consistent messaging from state and federal levels has sown public confusion.

by scott barker • July 22, 2020

A team of federal public health officials that visited Knox County earlier this month recommends a statewide mandate to wear masks to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus, and has suggested that a member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force meet with Gov. Bill Lee to lobby for such an order.

Federal officials recommend forming a post-disaster recovery group to plan for the future.

The team — made up of representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — also recommends taking steps to decrease COVID-19 test turnaround times, increase support for hospital and health department staff, and establish a long-term recovery group.

The federal team issued its findings in a four-page report summarizing its visit to Knoxville July 8-10. Maureen Bartee of the CDC, Robert Spence of FEMA, and Lochlin Sturrock of HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, met with local health and political leaders.

The memo, along with a report prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force that identifies Tennessee as one of 18 states in a “red zone” for COVID-19 spread, could be fodder for the Knox County Board of Health, which meets today to review the county’s pandemic response.

Bartee, Spence and Sturrock met with Knox County Health Department staff, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, hospital executives, Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency Director Colin Ickes, and other leaders.

The team’s memo, first reported by WBIR-TV and WATE-TV, summarizes the situation in Knox County and offers recommendations, including opportunities for federal help, if possible.

“Knox County is experiencing community transmission with rapid increases in cases since the beginning of July, especially among those under 65 years of age,” the team wrote.

People under the age of 65 account for roughly nine in 10 cases in Knox County, according to Health Department figures.

Contact tracing has identified two groups hit hard by COVID-19 —  Kirundi-speaking African refugees working in adult care homes and transient Hispanic construction workers. Hispanics have accounted for about 21 percent of all Knox County cases during the pandemic.

The team noted that the Health Department is conducting outreach to these communities and setting up testing sites in areas convenient for them. The Health Department has asked the CDC for Kirundi language resources to help reach that population. Kirundi is the official language of the African nation of Burundi.

The federal team lauded the Health Department’s response to the pandemic. “The Knox County Health Department has an excellent understanding of the epidemiologic data, appreciates the urgency of the situation, and communicates this information to the public through regular media briefings,” the team wrote.

Bartee, Spence and Sturrock wrote approvingly of Knox County’s indoor mask mandate, which went into effect the week before their visit, but said its effectiveness would be undercut by the lack of similar regulations in adjacent counties. “A statewide mandate is needed,” they wrote.

The team asserted that mask wearing is the most important way to keep the economy running while reducing coronavirus transmission, but consistent messaging from all levels of the government is needed.

“A lack of consistent messaging from federal and state officials is confusing the public about appropriate actions to take to mitigate the impact of the virus on their communities,” they wrote. “Political and social context makes additional closing or capacity restrictions on business operations challenging at this time, making social distancing and the wearing of masks or face coverings the most important factors for stopping the increasing incidence.” 

The team recommended enlisting the help of “trusted and influential celebrities, such as Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift, Chris Blue, and University of Tennessee sports coaches” to encourage Tennesseans to wear masks in public.

The memo addressed federal funding that hasn’t made its way to Knox County yet. Later this month, County Commission is scheduled to formally accept $7.1 million in federal funding, which will be used to ramp up contact tracing efforts.

Other recommendations include finding ways to support surge staffing for hospitals that will allow them to handle a spike in COVID-19 cases without affecting other services and, through the Knoxville-Knox County Emergency Management Agency, engaging organizations that provide disaster relief. 

Another suggestion in the report is to enlist the aid of academic laboratories and find other means to reduce the reporting time of test results. The Health Department has said it can take up to two weeks for test results to come back because of increased testing and supply shortages.

The team also recommends that the county explore developing a long-term community recovery group to establish “a community-based, post-disaster vision.” The group would identify projects and funding strategies for post-coronavirus economic recovery. FEMA can offer guidance and tools to help launch a recovery group in Knox County, the report stated.

In addition to lobbying for a statewide mask mandate and support for the Kirundi-speaking population, the CDC will look at ways to help manage outbreaks in the homeless population, best practices for reopening schools, ways to help Health Department staff deal with the stresses of responding to the pandemic and other issues raised by the coronavirus response.