With mask mandate set to expire, Hamilton County officials say they remain important public health tool

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a press conference at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Monday, March 29, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a press conference at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Monday, March 29, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County's mask mandate will expire at the end of the day Wednesday, but local health officials are recommending that citizens, businesses and schools still follow the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and continue to wear face coverings in situations with higher risk for COVID-19 exposure.

The latest guidelines, released Tuesday, say that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors in public spaces. Under the guidelines, fully vaccinated people can now visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without masks or physical distancing.

Vaccinated people can also go outdoors without wearing a mask to exercise and gather in small groups - including dining outdoors - but should still consider wearing a mask when in large outdoor gatherings.

Unvaccinated people may also go outdoors to exercise and attend small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends, according to the health department and the CDC.

"I understand that many of us are tired of wearing [masks], but cases in our community remain high and the majority of our residents have not been vaccinated and remain at high risk," said Dr. Fernando Urrego, interim health officer with the Hamilton County Health Department. "Until more people get vaccinated, we know that wearing a mask and physically distancing are effective measures that when consistently used by everyone will protect our community."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee ends authorization for local mask mandates in 89 counties)

Seventeen Hamilton County residents are reported to have died due to COVID-19 so far in April, according to Times Free Press tracking of COVID-19 data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

The number of Hamilton County residents hospitalized with COVID-19 has decreased about 20% in two weeks, with 20 county residents hospitalized as of Tuesday. The 30 other COVID-19 patients in the county hail from surrounding counties without mask mandates.

Hamilton County has averaged 48 new COVID-19 cases per day over the past week, which is about the same level of new cases seen on June 30, 2020, and represents an 18% decline in new cases from two weeks ago. However, the test positivity rate in the county remains above 10%, indicating that testing levels are not high enough to effectively monitor disease transmission.

These factors mean Hamilton County is still experiencing accelerated community spread of COVID-19 and is considered at risk for a worsening outbreak, according to the Key Metrics For COVID Suppression framework established by public health experts at Brown and Harvard universities.

As of Tuesday, approximately 37.4% of Hamilton County residents had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 28% of residents had received two doses, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hamilton County has reported more than 44,000 COVID-19 cases and nearly 500 resident deaths.

(READ MORE: Tennessee's low COVID-19 vaccination rate makes herd immunity less attainable; here's why that matters)

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said during a news briefing Tuesday that he implemented the public face mask requirement in July after it "became very apparent" that additional measures were needed to help slow transmission of the coronavirus.

"This was a health crisis, a pandemic, and it was the responsibility of the health department and government to be able to try to minimize the spread," Coppinger said. "We made the commitment at the time it would be a temporary situation - we weren't going to be in masks forever - but we knew it was really important."

(READ MORE: Unlike Dolly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee kept his first, second COVID-19 vaccine doses to himself)

Coppinger said the masks allowed Hamilton County's economy to bounce back faster and helped create a safer environment so that children could return to the classroom.

"I do believe that as a result of the mask mandate, businesses felt more comfortable allowing their employees to come to work and also in being able to assist their customers," he said. "And, again, it was really important to give our young people the opportunity to be able to go back to school when possible and to be able to interact."

Coppinger gave a month's notice that he would allow the mandate to expire. He said Tuesday that convincing more residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is even more critical, now that the mask mandate is lifting.

"You've been educated, made aware, by the health department for the last year and some odd months, about how to protect yourself if you're not vaccinated," Coppinger said. "But again, I want to encourage you to get vaccinated."

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