Hamilton County officials brace for coronavirus as Tennessee's first case emerges

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP)

Press conference with Governor Lee and Commissioner Piercey

Posted by Tennessee Department of Health on Thursday, March 5, 2020

A 44-year-old man from Williamson County tested positive for coronavirus Wednesday night, marking Tennessee's first confirmed case of the new virus that's infected nearly 100,000 people worldwide.

The patient has a recent history of out-of-state, domestic travel, according to state health officials. He's currently isolated at home with mild symptoms.

"We feel very prepared as a state, starting before cases ever began to arrive in the states," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said at a news conference Thursday morning. "Preparedness is critical, and I have full confidence in our preparedness plan that we've put in place."

On Wednesday, the governor announced the formation of a 15-member task force to boost the state's readiness and response in case of an outbreak.

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Testing for Tennessee's first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel, or new, coronavirus, was conducted Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Health. Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee Department of Health commissioner, said the department is currently working to identify people who may have been exposed.

Coronavirus hotline

Call the Chattanooga-Hamilton County coronavirus hotline at 423-209-8383 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or the Tennessee Department of Health hotline at 877-857-2945 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Central time daily.

In December 2019, Chinese health authorities identified an outbreak of pneumonia associated with a novel coronavirus, which has since been spreading to countries across the globe, including the United States. The virus is not currently widespread in the U.S.

(READ MORE: Coronavirus fears leading to some panic buying, avoiding stores in Chattanooga)

Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in 13 other states, including neighboring Georgia. In the U.S, the virus is responsible for killing 11 people in Washington and California.

The same precautions taken with the flu should be taken with COVID-19, Piercey said. Most patients experience a mild respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath. Some people, particularly older adults and those with chronic conditions, develop severe pneumonia that requires hospitalization.

"We continue to emphasize that the risk to the general public is low," Piercey said. "We just learned of this situation last night...We know you want specifics on this case, but we want to be able to give you accurate information and not speculate."

Hamilton County officials, including Mayor Jim Coppinger, health department leaders, the director of emergency management and the schools superintendent, held a press conference Thursday to overview local preparation efforts.

"I want to emphasize that to date, we have no cases in Hamilton County, but we have been anticipating that we will," said Becky Barnes, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department administrator. "We are working across all sectors in Hamilton County government to be prepared."

Planning efforts include communicating with the state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monitoring returning travelers, working with community partners and cross-training staff in case there's a surge in demand for services, Barnes said.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he "will work with Governor Lee to ensure the federal government is doing everything we can to assist Tennesseans" as the Senate voted to send an over $8 billion bill to President Trump to fight the virus.

"Those dollars, along with screening and travel restrictions on people coming from China and other affected places, and a speed up in making diagnostic kits available to detect coronavirus are all a part of that effort. The Trump Administration is using the resources and tools that Congress has provided to respond to the coronavirus," reads a statement from Alexander. "The United States is among the countries that are best prepared to keep Tennesseans - and all Americans - safe from the coronavirus and to prepare for additional cases."

Individuals with concerns about coronavirus can get more information here.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.