Hamilton County announces COVID-19 exposure at GOP event attended by Hagerty, Sethi

The Hamilton County Health Department is warning people who attended last week's Lincoln Day Dinner event, whose attendees included Republican U.S. Senate rivals Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi, that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

"Case investigations revealed that a person attended the event while in their infectious period," according to a health department news release issued Wednesday afternoon. "It is recommended that anyone who attended this event get tested and monitor their symptoms."

The Hamilton County Republican Party fundraiser event, which took place on Friday, July 31, at the Chattanooga Convention Center, created a social media firestorm after Hagerty, Sethi - who is a trauma surgeon - and a number of other attendees were shown in photos not wearing face masks and not maintaining social distance.

Hamilton County requires people to wear face coverings in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although there are certain exceptions for places where dinner is served.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond was also in attendance and seen not wearing a face mask.

Hagerty's campaign posted a montage of photos on his campaign's Facebook page of the candidate, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, with other unmasked attendees - including keynote speakers Diamond and Silk.

"We know that COVID-19 is highly contagious and can spread easily at large gatherings," Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said in Wednesday's new release. "We recommend staying home if you are sick, practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands frequently to stop the spread of the virus in our community."

An estimated 400 to 500 people attended the event.

Hamilton County's mask mandate requires all people in Hamilton County to wear a facial covering or mask that covers the mouth and nose at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings. The mandate lists a number of exceptions, including "persons seated for the purpose of dining in any restaurant or business that provides food and/or drink for on premises consumption."

Immediate attempts to reach spokespeople for the two Senate hopefuls and Hammond were unsuccessful.

Sethi posted on social media, "After hearing the news this afternoon that a Hamilton GOP Dinner attendee has tested positive for COVID, I'll be going to get tested out of an abundance of caution. I encourage @BillHagertyTN to go do the same, along with any others who think they may have been exposed."

In a statement following Friday's event, Hagerty campaign spokeswoman Abigail Sigler said "as Election Day quickly approaches, we are focused on sharing Bill's positive conservative message with Tennessee voters. They're tired of mandates and being told what to do by the government. Bill trusts the good people of Tennessee to make the right decisions for themselves."

In a Wednesday afternoon text, Sigler told the Times Free Press that "Bill got tested as soon as possible. He tested negative."

Sethi's campaign did not respond to the Times Free Press on the issue that day, but in a statement to WRCB-TV said, "this event was hosted by Hamilton County GOP, it was not a Dr. Manny event. Dr. Manny and his wife were just guests, and both of them had masks. Bill Hagerty didn't wear a mask either."

Asked about Sheriff Hammond's unmasked presence at the Hamilton County event, his spokesman, Matt Lea, said in an email that "sometimes the sheriff wears a mask, sometimes he doesn't. It depends on the event or the situation. He did have his temperature taken at the door, and he did sign a waiver along with the other guests at the Lincoln Day Dinner."

Both Hagerty and Sethi have traveled the state and appeared in dozens of settings without wearing masks as have many of their respective supporters. Both men lead in polls in the multi-candidate GOP nomination battle for the seat now held by retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

When asked if it bothers her that leaders chose not to follow the mask mandate, local COVID-19 Task Force Chairwoman Rae Bond said "of course." She was speaking in response to a reporter's question during a weekly media briefing on Tuesday about local efforts to control the pandemic.

"I understand that there were waivers signed, but a waiver is not going to protect you against COVID," Bond said. "I'm wearing a mask, and I think it's important for each of us who have the privilege of leadership in any role to do everything we can to model the only kind of behavior that's going to help move us through the pandemic."

She went on to say that she honors the local health department and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who made the call to implement the mask mandate in July, for their decision to require masks in the county. Coppinger did not attend the fundraiser.

The health department warned attendees that if COVID-19 symptoms occur, "do not leave your house except to visit a testing location or health care provider. If symptoms become worse, seek medical care quickly. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry persistent cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, recent change in smell or taste, headache, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting, or other symptoms as recognized by the CDC."

On Wednesday, the health department announced 80 new infections, bringing the county total to 5,749 with 1,131 active cases. There were 96 people hospitalized and 29 people in the intensive care unit because of the virus.

The department reported a new death Wednesday, a Black woman between 51 and 60 years old. The death is the 49th in the county. The number of coronavirus patients in the intensive care unit on Wednesday was a record high of 40.

Information about free health department COVID-19 testing and possible exposure is available online or by calling the health department's COVID-19 hotline at 423-209-8383.

The health department is asking that people do not call the Chattanooga Convention Center or the Hamilton County Republican Party for information related to COVID-19 exposures.

James Mackler, a Democratic candidate seeking the Senate seat, criticized his opponents for not wearing masks at the fundraiser.

"Real leaders don't put their personal political gain ahead of the health and safety of those they seek to serve," reads a Wednesday statement. "I'm asking Tennesseans to let me serve again, in a new crisis, because senators have a mission too - to serve all of America."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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