The Pandemic Takes Its Toll

The Pandemic Takes Its Toll

The number of deaths from COVID-19 complications reaches 50 in Knox County as cases continue to rise and schools prepare to open.

by scott barker • August 18, 2020
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Knox County Health Department staff prepares for drive-through testing in April. (Knox County Health Department photograph)

Knox County’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic reached 50 on Monday, a macabre milestone that seemed to arrive suddenly after months of relative safety. Forty-five of the fatalities — 90 percent of the total — have occurred since July 1.

Ninety percent of the COVID-19 deaths in Knox County have occurred since July 1.

Sixty percent of the deaths have involved people 65 years old or older, with 23 being at least 75 years old. Seniors are more susceptible than other age groups to complications and death from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, but five of the deceased have been in the 18-44 age range. 

“One local death from the COVID-19 pandemic is horrible, so obviously 50 is going to be heart-wrenching,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said on Monday. “The virus can affect anyone.”

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said, “This is a somber milestone, and tragic, because deaths from COVID-19 are avoidable.” 

COVID-19 has become the third leading cause of death in the United States, CNN is reporting, behind heart disease and cancer. The U.S. has averaged more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per day over the past three weeks. Nearly 1,400 Tennesseans have died in the pandemic, with 21 added to the total on Monday.

Knox County has seen close to one death daily since July 1, though the rate has slowed from its peak in late July. 

“While this benchmark is still generating red flags in our monitoring system, and no deaths are acceptable, the rate appears to be stabilizing,” Charity Menefee, the Health Department’s director of environmental and communicable disease and emergency preparedness, said about the death rate during a media briefing last week.

Knox County has not seen the same toll in its nursing homes that other Tennessee communities have endured. Though 21 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Knox County have seen outbreaks of two or more cases, only five residents have died, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Long-term care facilities, with their vulnerable populations, can be the center of case clusters. Thirty-five residents of a single nursing home in Memphis have died. Metro Nashville-Davidson County has four long-term facilities with double-digit fatalities. One nursing home in McMinn County reported 14 deaths.

Racial and ethnic disparities are apparent. In Knox County, African Americans have accounted for at least 20 percent of the fatalities (seven cases list the race of the deceased as “unknown”) and 12.2 percent of all cases, though they are only 8.9 percent of the population.

Knox County’s Latino population — 4.6 percent of the county overall — was particularly hard hit in the first months of the pandemic, when more than one-third of the cases involved Hispanic patients. That proportion has fallen to 15 percent as the novel coronavirus has spread. Four Hispanic residents have died from COVID-19 complications.

Men are more likely to die than women, though women have been infected in slightly higher numbers. Thirty-two of the 50 deaths have been males.

Knox County avoided the brunt of the pandemic for months. From March through June, case counts and the death toll remained relatively low compared to Memphis, Nashville and other areas of Tennessee first hit by the novel coronavirus.

Shelby and Davidson counties have seen roughly four times the number of COVID-19 cases as Knox County. Their death tolls are 334 and 230, respectively.

Since July 1, however, the cumulative case count in Knox County has surged from 977 to 5,429, not including 194 current probable cases. That’s a 456 percent increase in less than seven weeks.

The average daily increase in new cases has slowed slightly. During the past seven days, Knox County has added an average of 92 cases a day, down from 129 cases a day from July 28-Aug. 3. Health Department officials so far have stopped short of crediting the Board of Health’s mandate to wear masks in most public buildings with slowing the growth in new cases.

“Thankfully, our numbers are starting to plateau and lessen and our hope is that we have these conversations less and less,” Jacobs said.

Though seniors are at a higher risk for complications, the spread of the novel coronavirus is concentrated in younger people. Only 511 of Knox County’s cumulative cases have been confirmed in seniors. About 60 percent of all cases have been in the 18-44 age range.

With the University of Tennessee beginning classes on Wednesday and Knox County Schools planning to open Aug. 24, concerns about young people ignoring social distancing guidelines and accelerating the spread are growing. Officials continue to emphasize what they call the five core actions — wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, washing hands, cleaning surfaces and staying home when sick.

“As our schools and UT reopen, we all need to redouble our efforts to practice the five core actions, to follow the science, to look out for one another,” Kincannon said. “Don’t wait until it’s your loved one who is suffering. This is a public health crisis that requires a community-wide, sustained response.”