August becomes deadliest month for COVID-19 in Hamilton County, but spread is slowing

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a press conference in Golley Auditorium at the Hamilton County Health Department on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. It was announced during the Press conference that the second and third cases of COVID-19 coronavirus in Hamilton County had been confirmed.

August was the deadliest month on record for COVID-19 patients in Hamilton County, killing 27 residents and passing the previous high of 18 in July.

The spike in deaths came on the heels of a surge in July during which the county averaged 108 new cases a day, records show. The spike in deaths follows the basic trend of the virus, which can take weeks to hospitalize or kill someone who is infected.

The month was particularly deadly for Black residents of the county. Nationwide, Black and Hispanic communities are being disproportionately infected and killed by the virus, caused in part by longstanding inequalities in access to health care. In August, 13 of the 27 deaths reported in Hamilton County were Black residents.

There was also a significant increase in the number of deaths among people over 81 years old. In August, 10 deaths were reported in that age group, more than any other group.

Chris Ramsey, president of the Southeast Tennessee Health Consortium, which started the area's minority health fair 19 years ago, said even though new cases have plateaued in recent weeks, the pandemic is far from over.

"COVID is still present - you see the death totals are still going up," he said, adding that August's data shows the need for continued efforts to bring COVID-19 testing and health services to Hamilton County's underserved areas.

(Help us tell the stories of Chattanooga area residents who have died from COVID-19)

In recent weeks, though, the spread of the virus appears to be slowing across the county. The county averaged 77 new cases per day in the past week and has 1,502 active cases as of Monday, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

The number of people hospitalized and in intensive care units has dropped throughout the month, too. On Monday there were 51 people hospitalized and 14 people in an ICU with the virus, down from a high of 92 and 40, respectively, near the start of the month.

On Monday, the county was averaging a positive test rate of 4.8% for the past week, down from an average of 8.4% at the end of last month.

As county schools reopened in August, and now have moved to a five-day learning schedule, cases continued to spike in the 11-to-20-year-old age range. Since the start of the month, cases in that age bracket increased by 74%, more than any other age bracket.

In a statement last week, Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said many of the new cases have been linked to social gatherings and sporting events. 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.

"Although young people have less risk of serious complications from COVID-19, they can spread it to their parents and grandparents who are at greater risk of hospitalization or death," Barnes said in the statement.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.

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