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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Health Department Administrator of Health Services Becky Barnes speaks during a press briefing before a tour of the Alstom COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Hamilton County Health Department reported 12 new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, marking the deadliest day yet for the virus in the county.

The new fatalities bring the total to 36 since Dec. 1, making December already the second deadliest month of the pandemic in Hamilton County, only eight days in. The deadliest month so far was November, when 44 people died, beating the previous record of 27 in August.

The recent spike in deaths is likely tied to behaviors before the Thanksgiving holiday, when millions of Americans still gathered with people outside their homes despite warnings from public health officials. The impacts of those gatherings are beginning to appear in rising hospitalization numbers since hospitalizations typically follow several weeks after infection and deaths spike several weeks after hospitalizations.

The county health department reported 150 hospitalizations and 27 people in the intensive care unit with the virus Tuesday, nearly tying the record for confirmed hospitalizations. The department reported 434 new infections and 2,960 active cases, a record. In the past week, Hamilton County is averaging 348 new cases a day and a positivity rate of 23% on new tests.

The surge of new cases in the past month forced the health department to suspend contact tracing efforts on Friday. Local health experts said the virus was too widespread and the health department does not have the staff to keep up with efforts to inform those who have been exposed.

Rae Bond, chair of the local COVID-19 task force, said during a Tuesday news conference that while local hospital capacity is not yet an issue, all hospitals are facing staffing challenges. The call is still out for former health care workers to offer their skills to offset the strain local medical systems are facing.

The surge of cases and deaths locally is a trend playing out statewide. Tennessee passed 5,000 deaths from the virus Monday, the same day the state reported a record 8,136 new cases.

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

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