Hamilton County is averaging 65 new COVID-19 cases per day for the past week - the same level of new cases the county was reporting during the height of the local case surge in early June - with community spread of the virus at its highest levels to date.
At the start of June, the Hamilton County Health Department could identify the source of the infection in half of local cases, according to health department data. Now, around a third of the cases can be linked to a previously known case, making contact tracing to find and isolate other infected people even more challenging.
Early last month, new cases were driven primarily by outbreaks among essential workers - those whose jobs never allowed them to shelter at home - and multigenerational households.
Rae Bond, chairwoman of the Hamilton County COVID-19 Task Force, said during a news briefing Tuesday that large gatherings, such as graduations, weddings and other church events, are now contributing to the increase in community spread.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases among Black residents of Hamilton County have doubled in the past two weeks, which is consistent with national trends that show the coronavirus disproportionately infects and kills black and Hispanic residents, widening health disparities already created by housing, poverty, limited access to health care and racism.
In the United States, Black people are five times more likely to be hospitalized or die from the coronavirus than non-Hispanic, white Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most people with COVID-19 recover, but a growth in cases is typically a precursor to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. After the previous case surge in early June, Hamilton County reported its deadliest month of the pandemic to date.
On Tuesday, Hamilton County reported its 36th COVID-19 fatality - a Black woman over the age of 80.
COVID-19 hospitalizations, particularly the number of people in intensive care, in Hamilton County remain near their highest points. As of Tuesday, 53 patients (31 Hamilton County residents) were hospitalized, including 20 in intensive care.
During Tuesday's briefing, Bond said that Blood Assurance desperately needs recovered COVID-19 patients to donate plasma, which can help treat critically ill patients struggling to recover from the disease on their own.
She also said task force members are "very appreciative" of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's decision to start requiring face masks in public places.
"We expect that it will have a significant impact on the spread of COVID in our community," Bond said.
When asked if Coppinger's mask mandate came too late, Kerry Hayes, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's chief of staff, said that he's "very reluctant to start assigning blame to any local actor or decision maker."
"We are so appreciative and so happy to see any steps that the health department here wants to take that we think are going to contribute to controlling the spread," Hayes said, adding that COVID-19 is "not a problem that begins and ends at the Hamilton County border."
On Tuesday, Tennessee reported 1,359 new coronavirus cases out of 16,564 new tests, as well as 12 new deaths and 53 new hospitalizations.
Lee is under pressure from physicians who say the governor should implement a statewide face mask mandate to help slow the pandemic's spread.
In June, Tennessee COVID-19 hospitalizations increased by 70%, and ICU bed use increased by 56%.
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