This story was updated at 4:27 p.m. on Wednesday, April 1, 2020, with more information.
A child under 5 years old has died of COVID-19 in Hamilton County, marking the first local pediatric death from the virus, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
According to department administrator Becky Barnes at a press conference late Wednesday, the deceased died in a local hospital and had underlying illnesses that contributed to the condition.
The child death marks the fifth confirmed death from the virus in the county where total confirmed cases are up to 52 in less than three weeks since the first local case was confirmed.
Barnes said there are two other reported pediatric cases in the county, one recovered and one still ill, and a sibling of one of the confirmed cases is ill but awaiting test results.
With the growing number of cases and deaths, Barnes pleaded with community members to take the virus seriously and practice social distancing, even when it's inconvenient.
"We can reduce this but it takes all of us changing our habits, our social distancing. I mean, you know it's hard," Barnes said, referencing her own struggle to cut back on activities like touching her face, to stay in accordance with federal safety guidelines. "You should think to yourself, 'if I go [to a public place], or do whatever it is I am going to do, is that worth risking illness or even death in my family?"
In the first such data released by the department, the county reports 43 people hospitalized in Hamilton County with a confirmed case or suspected case of the disease. Not all are Hamilton County residents.
The department has not released a breakdown of how many patients are at each hospital and has refused to share the municipalities or region of the county where the cases and deaths have occurred.
Meanwhile, Barnes says the county has plenty of testing supplies now after a two week shortage and is expecting to ramp up community assessments starting Friday at a recently announced drive-thru screening location.
Barnes said that while the county has been preparing for this virus to hit since January, there is no prediction or available data to guess when it will peak locally.
"The peak is determined by us. It could just keep getting bigger and bigger if we don't control it," Barnes said in one of many pleas to individuals to be responsible. "We have the ability in our community to have a hill instead of a mountain of illness."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.