Large events continue COVID-19 spread in Hamilton County, but health experts say there are ways to minimize risk

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Students wear masks as they walk through the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Aug. 17, 2020.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to affect residents throughout Hamilton County but increasingly the spread of the potentially deadly disease is happening at large-scale events.

A month ago, the Hamilton County Health Department was warning of community spread as the number of new cases that could be linked to a previously known case dropped to 32% of all infections. Since then, the rate has increased to 46% as of Tuesday.

Rae Bond, chairwoman of the county COVID-19 task force, said the increase is due to more cases coming from single, large gatherings. These types of events should be avoided, she said.

"It's best not to go and assemble at bars in groups of people where you're not masked," Bond said during a news conference Tuesday. "There are just some things that can help us as a community get on the right side of this, and large gatherings are not one of the things that help us get on the right side of managing the pandemic."

Recently, spread has been tied to in-person gatherings, such as weddings, church services and graduation ceremonies. Superspreading events - in which a single infected person can spread a lot of the virus in a short amount of time - can exponentially increase a health department's contact tracing workload as it attempts to follow up with every potential contact of every new case.

In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order to raise the number of people allowed to participate in social and recreational activities from 10 to 50. However, the city of Chattanooga has refused to approve permits for activities that gather more than 10 people. The restriction forced protesters to move to private property rather than gathering at Miller Park two weeks ago.

In July, Westmore Church of God faced criticism for hosting a regional meeting for the Church of God denomination, during which dozens of people were infected. After a week of silence, the pastor said the church was no longer counting the number of people infected. The state and international offices for the denomination shut down because of the virus.

Earlier this month, local Republicans were criticized for holding the Lincoln Day Dinner fundraiser. Most of the hundreds of people who attended the indoor event were not wearing masks. This week, state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who attended the dinner, was placed in the intensive care unit with the virus but is recovering.

(READ MORE; While COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County begin trending up, other indicators show progress)

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said it is fine to tell organizers you are not comfortable going to in-person events at the moment.

"If you attend one of these events, be prepared to understand that the virus will be there," Schaffner said. "You can be assured statistically that somebody will bring the virus because these are obviously people who are not strictly adherent to the current COVID prevention guidelines."

Many people are still organizing and attending such gatherings in spite of the best available public health advice and while there are virtual options. While the risk of infection can never be dropped to zero, there are things that can be done to minimize the chance of exposure, Schaffner said.

First, look at your own risk: How old are you? Do you have underlying health conditions? Are you able to quarantine if you are exposed? Weigh these when deciding.

Second, read the room. Go in right before the ceremony begins. Stay away from others and maybe sit near the back or near a window, Schaffner said.

Third, stay true to the plan. Do not revert to old behavior. This will be tempting since you will be around people you know and love, Schaffner said.

"You're going to wear a mask. Even if you're the only one in the room, wear the mask," he said. "This is not a time where I think you ought to be hugging and kissing everybody. Keep your distance. Wave and say, 'Aunt Sarah, I'd love to give you a hug. You know, it's COVID time,' and give her a smile and a twinkle in your eye and keep separate from people."

Under Hamilton County's mask mandate, face coverings must be worn during weddings and funerals except for the actual ceremony, during which masks are not required because of a religious exemption.

However, Dr. Paul Hendricks, health officer with the county health department, said voluntarily wearing the mask during the ceremony is strongly recommended.

"It is very important that you not attend such events if you are suffering from any symptoms which could be related to COVID-19 or if you have been recently exposed to anyone known to be infected with the virus," Hendricks said. "It's also important to realize that, even with all of these precautions, you cannot totally eliminate your risk of contracting the virus at such events, but you can certainly diminish that risk."

Hendricks and Schaffner said you should only be tested if you start developing symptoms. Getting immediately tested after attending an in-person event may not be helpful since you may not start turning positive for five or so days after exposure, Schaffner said.

"The rule is, unfortunately, not the more the merrier. Just the reverse. The fewer, the better. If you're attentive to that, you can make these events work," Schaffner said.

On Tuesday, the health department reported 173 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the county total to 6,986. However, the new cases added include 90 historically probable cases the county was adding to update data, according to a news release Tuesday. There were 58 people hospitalized with the virus, including 21 in the intensive care unit on Tuesday.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this report.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.