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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Healthcare worker Kristen Pennington places COVID-19 test provided by the non-profit organizations Alleo and CEMPA into a cooler at Hospice of Chattanooga on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County broke five records Wednesday among statistics central to measuring the impact of COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread rapidly in the community.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 467 new infections, 2,419 active cases, 147 hospitalizations and 43 people in the intensive care unit, all of which are records. The county is averaging 267 new cases a day in the past week, a record as well.

New tests have averaged a 15% positivity rate in the past week. Health experts have pointed to a positivity rate below 5% as a necessary benchmark for controlling the spread of the virus.

The health department reported three additional deaths Wednesday, bringing the county total to 161. Deaths have been surging recently with 44 people dying from the virus in November, the deadliest month to date. The health department reported three or more deaths on a single day 14 times since the pandemic began, with seven of those 14 times happening in the past month.

"We're at a point right now where we really just need to hunker down and keep doing the things that we know work," Rae Bond, chair of the local Joint COVID-19 Task Force, said during a news briefing Tuesday while pleading with Hamilton County residents to take precautions seriously.

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Read the White House COVID-19 Task Force report from Nov. 29, 2020

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The county will begin seeing the impact of the Thanksgiving holiday as symptoms typically present between two and 14 days after exposure. Taking this into account along with the time necessary to turn around test results, the coming days will be key to measuring just how damaging holiday gatherings were on containing the virus in Hamilton County.

A single data point or a single-day jump can be viewed as a snapshot but should be taken into consideration along with larger trends. The records broken Wednesday are notable because they continue a month-long trend upward for new cases, hospitalizations and active cases.

Across the state and nation, the risk of contracting the coronavirus is at a "historic high," according to the White House COVID-19 Task Force's weekly report for Tennessee.

"We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity," the report states. "A further post-Thanksgiving surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall."

The report calls on public health officials to alert residents directly "if state and local policies do not reflect the seriousness of the current situation." For weeks, the White House reports have recommended that Tennessee implement a statewide mask mandate and reduce restaurant capacity in response to escalating community spread and new cases. Gov. Bill Lee has done neither.

"It must be made clear that if you are over 65 or have significant health conditions, you should not enter any indoor public spaces where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk to your health; you should have groceries and medications delivered," the most recent report from Sunday says, adding that people under 40 years old who gathered beyond their immediate household during Thanksgiving should assume they are now infected.

"Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk for severe disease and get tested immediately. If you are over 65 or have significant medical conditions and you gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection; if you develop any symptoms, you must be tested immediately as the majority of therapeutics work best early in infection," it says.

On a positive note, the report says COVID-19 is improving in European countries and states that have implemented strong mitigation strategies but not closed schools.

"We really can continue to make our way through the pandemic. We can slow the spread, we can avoid overwhelming our hospital systems, but it takes each one of us inconveniencing ourselves a little bit right now for the greater good," Bond said Tuesday. "I just want to encourage people — don't get tired, don't give up, keep wearing your mask, keep social distancing."

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.

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