Hamilton County Schools not requiring masks as COVID-19 data 'all going in the wrong direction'

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Kingston Daniels, 13, right, gets nervous before Nurse Practitioner Meghan Whitehead administers Daniels' first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine at LifeSpring Community Health on Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools will encourage but not require students and staff to wear face masks when class resumes in two weeks, as county officials raise increasing alarms about a worsening COVID-19 pandemic surging again, powered by the delta variant.

Hamilton County commissioners on Wednesday questioned county Mayor Jim Coppinger and Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes about schools reopening as the county's vaccination rate remains low and COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge.

Barnes told the group that key metrics used to track the pandemic are "all going in the wrong direction."

Several county commissioners gave impassioned responses to Barnes, including David Sharpe, D-Chattanooga, who said the county's worsening COVID-19 picture "concerns me to my core."

"Right now, we have this mask policy in our Hamilton County Schools with masks optional. That's like, an umbrella is optional in a rainstorm. You don't have to use an umbrella, but if you don't, you're going to get soaking wet," Sharpe said. "We need to have stronger language around that. ... I'm just a parent who's scared to death that my 6-year-old son is going to get COVID and die. We had a 4-year-old boy in North Georgia die last week because of COVID."

(READ MORE: Son of Whitfield County deputy dies of COVID-19)

Hamilton County Schools will host a virtual town hall Thursday at 5 p.m. to gather community input and answer questions about its reopening strategy, which the district recently began releasing in part on social media and will reveal in full on Aug. 5.

Schools spokesperson Cody Patterson offered a number of reasons for not requiring masks, including that around 70% of teachers and staff are vaccinated. He also said that children appear to be less effective transmitters of COVID-19 - something that is true more so for small children than adolescents and teenagers.

Patterson also cited Gov. Bill Lee's action lifting certain pandemic restrictions across the state in the spring, which Hamilton County school district officials cited in lifting mask requirements as of June 1.

But Lee's office had clarified in April that his action in ramping down COVID-19 restrictions did not apply to schools. His education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, reiterated Monday that such decisions rest at the school district level. Memphis schools are planning a mask mandate when they convene this fall.

Following along with updated COVID-19 guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Tuesday, the Hamilton County Health Department on Wednesday updated its own guidance by recommending that everyone over the age of two regardless of vaccination status wear masks indoors because of the spread of the highly contagious delta variant and the threat of breakthrough cases for vaccinated individuals, which are rare but more likely in older people and those with weakened immune systems.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 141 new COVID-19 cases. The latest data is the first time the county has reported two straight days of more than 100 new cases since Feb. 18. The county is averaging 93 new cases a day in the past week, the highest seven-day average since Feb. 24.

There were 76 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the hospital with the virus on Wednesday, according to data from the health department. On July 1, the hospitalization total was 14. The only precedent for the spike in hospitalizations over the past two weeks is the surge of cases in the winter, which led to the deadliest months of the pandemic for Hamilton County and the surrounding area.

Barnes noted that the health department's and CDC's most recent prior guidance, which was issued before the delta variant swept the nation, said that unvaccinated people could ditch their masks inside.

"What happened is everybody quit wearing a mask. So, you know, we're back in the same situation we were before where cases keep increasing," Barnes said. "We need to get [eligible people] vaccinated as soon as possible. The other thing is, in the present, we need to wear masks and social distance until we get our vaccination rate up to where cases start going down, hospitalizations are going down again."

Dr. Anna Morad, president of the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics - which released its own guidance for school reopening that included everyone over age two wearing masks - said the association is getting "pushback" on its universal masking recommendation for schools, but it's a recommendation that's supported by data and science.

Although children rarely become seriously ill from COVID-19, it does happen and they can also spread the virus to others, she said.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County parents protest at school board meeting, address members over mask requirement)

"We have a large proportion of people in our state that have chosen not to be vaccinated, so you have a pretty dangerous situation," Morad said. "What the AAP is asking is a layered approach - to continue masking, to continue good hygiene and to mitigate that spread."

She said the association feels "very strongly" that schools need to be open for in-person learning with appropriate safety measures in place. Part of the reasoning is that childhood COVID-19 vaccination rates are low and children under 12 years old are not eligible for vaccination at this time.

"You're going to have buses that are shared, sports that are shared - you're going to have a lot of commingling - so it's important to have consistency," Morad said. "We've seen that reopening of schools doesn't necessarily lead to a spike in cases, provided that you're doing those other mitigation strategies."

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

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