This story was updated at 6:55 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 4, with more information.
The COVID-19 outbreak in the tri-state area around Chattanooga is among the fastest-growing in the nation as the virus surges in rural and urban areas.
On Friday, The New York Times ranked Athens, Tennessee, first in the nation for a week-to-week rise in new cases of the coronavirus. Scottsboro, Alabama, was ranked third and Cleveland, Tennessee, was ranked ninth.
Tennessee's rate of new infections has spiked in the previous two months, putting it among some of the fastest-growing states in the nation for coronavirus. Rhea and McMinn counties are among the worst in the state for new cases in the past week.
In a 21-county region in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, the virus has grown most rapidly in the past seven days in Jackson County, Alabama, where Scottsboro is located, according to analysis by the Times Free Press. Jackson County averaged 11.82 new cases a day in the past week per 10,000 residents. Calculating new cases on a per capita basis allows for comparison across heavily populated and more rural counties.
"I think you're seeing COVID fatigue here just like you are everywhere else. People are tired of the masks, they're tired of staying separated," Scottsboro Mayor Jim McCamy said Friday of Jackson County's cases. While recent numbers reflect rising virus activity from a couple of weeks back, "that doesn't take into account Thanksgiving last week," he said.
"I'm afraid what you're going to see is a significant spike in the numbers we already have," he said.
Jackson County's Highlands Medical Center has seven positive in-patients, Cumberland Health and Rehab has 10 positive residents and Highlands Health and Rehab has nine positive residents, he said.
"That's not that many when you look at the big picture and the numbers that The New York Times published," he said, "but what's concerning to me is the positivity rate for the last 14 days. "
Jackson County's positivity rate for that period was 53%, he said.
"Of 1,756 tests in the last two weeks there were 926 positives," he said. "At the same time in the same two weeks the state of Alabama average was 31%."
McCamy called the increase and positivity rate "significant," and he believes cold weather is going to make it worse as people start spending more time together indoors.
McCamy said he's urging Jackson County folks "to wear a mask, separate and sanitize."
McMinn County, where Athens is located, and Bradley County, which is home to Cleveland, ranked third and fourth, respectively, on the list of new cases in the region over the past week.
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks was out of town Friday and city manager Joe Fivas couldn't be reached for comment.
McMinn County Mayor John Gentry and Athens city manager C. Seth Sumner said the ranking reflects a surge the community is experiencing but their message to residents regarding protective measures remains the same: frequent handwashing, masks and social distancing — and anyone who feels sick should stay home.
"First of all, the increase is real. I personally know more people who have it," Gentry said Friday. "Let's not sugar-coat that at all."
But Gentry and Sumner say the Athens and McMinn County community with a population of around 50,000 is right at the bottom of the threshold for being included in micro statistical area that is used for the surge rankings. If some of those criteria were removed, Athens wouldn't even be in the top 10 in Tennessee, Gentry contends.
Sumner said via email that The New York Times rankings acknowledge data on areas with a population less than 50,000 is being left out.
"This fails to account for most communities that are more similar to Athens, Tennessee, and does not tell the story of what those communities are witnessing right now," Sumner said. "A more accurate way to tell our community's COVID-19 story is by looking at properly identified data sets [counties] and real-time infection rates, whereby McMinn ranks 1,342 out of 3,141 — not the number one, not in the top 100, nor top 1,000. We are in the top 50% increase in infection rates."
Gentry said he's watched local case numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health wax and wane over the last few weeks, and other factors might be at play along with a surge in cases.
"The seven-day average that ended Nov. 25, we were at a 10% positively rate," Gentry said. "It had taken a dip. On the 15th of November we were at almost a 19% positivity rate. Then we have a declining positivity rate. Then the spike hits," he said.
"From the dip to the new number, 23%, shows that higher rate. You had a larger climb that caused us to make the list," Gentry said, as he compared past figures to the latest state figures released at 3 p.m. Friday.
"The last three days, we're trending down again," he said. "Hopefully that was our 'wave' that we had to experience and we'll see that rate continue to come down."
But Gentry, echoing McCamy's concerns in Alabama, still wants to see what the impact of Thanksgiving will be on the case count in the community.
"I think that'll let us know a little bit about Christmas. This coming week should be reflective of the Thanksgiving holiday, based on what we know to be true so far in how things trend," he said. "I think this week will tell us a lot statewide about the impact of the holidays."
Rhea County, Tennessee, had the second-highest growth of new cases in the past week with 11.41 new cases per 10,000 residents. The county was not on the Times's list of surges nationally because Rhea County's entire population does not meet the Times requirement of at least 50,000 people to designate a metro area.
For context of how bad the virus has become in Southeast Tennessee, the surge of the virus in Hamilton County — which broke multiple records for active cases, new infections and hospitalizations this week — ranks sixth in the region with 7.29 new cases per 10,000 residents. The county broke its hospitalization record again Thursday, reporting 151 hospitalizations and 43 people in the intensive care unit.
Cases are spiking across the region in the past two weeks. A jump in cases is often followed several weeks later by an increase in hospitalizations and, a few weeks after that, a spike in coronavirus-related deaths. The surge of cases Hamilton County first began reporting in mid-October led to November being the deadliest month for the virus, killing 44 residents.
This is not the first time Southeast Tennessee got national attention for its COVID-19 outbreak. In May and June, the New York Times ranked Chattanooga as having the fifth-highest and then the second-highest growth rate for the virus in the country. Cleveland also appeared on the list of emerging hotspots in June.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.