With COVID-19 cases mounting, the Knox County Board of Health took only symbolic action on Wednesday.
The Knox County Board of Health passed a resolution on Wednesday that recommends — but does not mandate — limiting gatherings inside buildings to 25 people in 900 square feet of space.
Knox County has recorded 1,100 new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days.
The board’s vote came at the end of a three-hour meeting that centered on how to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus among University of Tennessee students.
UT’s active case count has risen to 622, and Chancellor Donde Plowman has threatened students with disciplinary action if they don’t follow anti-coronavirus guidelines.
The resolution is a recommendation that doesn’t have the force of law, meaning that gatherings of more that 25 people are still allowed. Under state guidelines previously adopted by the Board of Health, public gatherings are limited to 50 people.
Acknowledging the symbolic nature of the resolution, board member Dr. Patrick O’Brien said, “This is a way of telling the public we want to give good advice.”
Otherwise, the board opted to keep the response on its current course, despite a surge in cases. Knox County has reported 1,100 new COVID-19 cases over the past seven days.
Earlier in the meeting, a vote to rescind the county’s requirement that bars close at 10 p.m. garnered a majority of the members present but not enough to pass. Four of the nine board members voted to approve removing the restriction.
The same fate befell a measure that would have gone in the other direction and expanded the closing time regulation to clubs that allow brown bagging.
Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department and a member of the board, said informal gatherings where people let down their guard and don’t practice social distancing is a bigger problem.
“The most common setting for a cluster is a community setting,” she said. “It’s not restaurants.”
Board member Dr. Marcy Sousa was absent, and she could have provided the decisive vote. Buchanan’s decision not to vote had an impact also.
As an ex-officio member of the board, Buchanan has traditionally refrained from voting on board matters. However, Deputy Law Director David Sanders said she could have weighed in. “Technically, she could have been voting all along,” he said.
The reopening of schools, both K-12 and UT, has sparked an increase in COVID-19 cases. Buchanan said infections among people between the ages of 11 and 20 have increased 279 percent since July 28.
Plowman told the board that the campus is making changes in response to a tripling of cases since Aug. 31. The university is turning Massey Hall into a quarantine dorm and will add a hotel to expand its inventory of rooms used for isolation.
Of the approximately 7,7oo students who live on campus, 961 were in isolation either because they had tested positive for the novel coronavirus or they have been in close contact with someone who has been infected. Another 985 students who live off campus are in isolation as well.
“Clearly we’ve got to make a change in our environment,” Plowman said. “We’re looking at what other universities are doing and putting everything on the table. It’s not good news.”
Knox County Schools is confronting the pandemic as well. The district has reported only 38 active cases among students, but 747 are in isolation.
Cedar Bluff Middle School went to online only instruction this week, but officials hope to return to in-class instruction on Sept. 15. One factor will be the availability of substitute teachers. They’ve been in short supply during the pandemic, according to Lisa Wagoner, the system’s health services director and its representative on the Board of Health.
Knox County has seen 8,033 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic arrived locally in March. Board of Health member Dr. James Shamiyeh pointed out that it took 113 days for Knox County to record its first 1,000 cases but only nine to amass its most recent 1,000 cases.
Knox County has fewer cumulative cases than the three other largest counties in Tennessee, but case counts are dropping in Shelby, Davidson and Hamilton counties. Knox County’s cases continue to rise.
The recent spike in cases prompted the board to dismiss rescinding the mandate to wear masks inside most buildings accessible to the public.
“I think it’s too early at this point,” O’Brien said. “We need to keep doing what we’re doing.”