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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Jacque Heffner, right, looks on as her husband Trevor uses his phone to purchase tickets to the Tennessee Aquarium at the Aquarium Plaza on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The aquarium has dedicated hours when masks are required for visitors.

UPDATE: Hamilton County residents will now be required to wear face masks or coverings in public, according to Mayor Jim Coppinger on Monday, July 6.

Every week, the Times Free Press will publish essential things to know about the coronavirus pandemic in the Chattanooga region. For more updated case count numbers and other data related to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, visit timesfreepress.com/virus/.

Five things to know about COVID-19 in the Chattanooga region for the week ending on July 3:

1. New cases, new worries in Tennessee: On the first day of July, Tennessee and Hamilton County both reported the largest single-day increase in new COVID-19 infections, part of a growing trend of new cases in both urban and rural areas.

Why it matters: Gov. Bill Lee and the state's top health official, Dr. Lisa Piercey, are warning people against being complacent about the virus, especially going into the holiday weekend. On Wednesday, Piercey said that while "coronavirus fatigue" may feel like a reason to let loose and celebrate like old times, doing so will increase the risk of spreading the virus at a time when the state is already experiencing record new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. At the same time, health departments are finding it increasingly difficult to trace where infections are coming from and to get people to quarantine, which is essential to control the pandemic until a vaccine becomes available. Lee also expressed unease about rising COVID-19 case counts in rural areas, specifically Bradley, Sevier, Rutherford and Macon counties. He encouraged residents of these counties to get tested for the virus at a local health department and stay home whenever possible.

Read more about what the governor said about the surging cases in the state and what's at risk when we don't know how the virus is spreading.

 

2. Masks, masks, masks: Face coverings could soon be required in Hamilton County, but for now, Chattanooga is the only major Tennessee city without a face mask mandate.

Why it matters: Face coverings are one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19, and they become even more crucial indoors and at times when social distancing may not be possible. However, wearing a face mask has increasingly become a political symbol for some people, even as medical experts and elected officials from both parties are strongly urging residents to wear a face covering when in public. As new COVID-19 cases continue to swell in areas across the nation, states, cities and counties are mandating that citizens wear face coverings. Mask mandates exist in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke would like the city to follow suit, but state law gives Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger the sole authority to make that call. Coppinger said this week that he would "strongly consider" a mandate in the county, but has not yet committed to any such action. Starting Monday, Chattanooga will require face masks within city facilities and continue to advocate against preemptive rules that restrict city authority.

Read more about Coppinger's thoughts on masks, whether the government can make you wear a mask and which businesses are requiring a face covering to enter.

 

3. 'Between a rock and a window pane': As many citizens return to work and other activities, residents of senior living facilities remain isolated and largely alone.

Why it matters: Residents of senior living facilities are still being forced to follow strict isolation protocols, and that's unlikely to change as long as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County is on the rise. Medical providers and family members fear that the safety measures meant to prevent COVID-19 infection in the most vulnerable are having as much if not more negative impact on the physical and mental health of older adults than the pandemic itself. Facilities and families are grappling with how to protect seniors while not letting their health and happiness slip away.

Read more about a visit with Mamaw Ruthie and why assisted living facilities face unique challenges during COVID-19.

 

4. Church re-closes doors after outbreak: At least a dozen cases have been reported in the Westmore Church of God Congregation in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Why it matters: Since early in the pandemic, religious events have fueled large COVID-19 outbreaks due to the nature of many traditional church services. That's because the coronavirus is spread from person to person through infected respiratory droplets, and many religious activities bring people together in close quarters, often sharing food or drink, shouting or singing, which projects significantly more droplets than talking. A review of live-streamed events at Westmore — including a revival on June 22 that involved hundreds of people — show that church members could have easily been exposed. People connected to the church said the outbreak is two or three times the number that the church has said publicly. The revelation underscores that large indoor gatherings continue to pose a high risk for COVID-19 transmission.

Read more about what we know regarding the outbreak at a church in Cleveland and other large-scale exposures occurring at high school graduations.

 

5. Hamilton County ends deadliest month for COVID-19: In June, the county saw a near doubling of local deaths as hospitalizations surged following a month-long increase in new coronavirus cases.

Why it matters: Deaths in the county nearly doubled in June, from 15 to 30, during the month, including one suspected death from March that was reported last month. Hospitalizations and deaths are two strong indicators of the severity of the outbreak, although they're delayed metrics in that it takes time for new infections to reach the point of serious illness. While most people recover from the virus, those that need the most extreme medical interventions are often seeking care days if not weeks after being infected. The month-long spike in cases in May and early June led to the large number of deaths announced last month. Hamilton County now has 30 total COVID-19 fatalities. Twenty of those were male, 10 were Hispanic and 10 were people age 71-80.

Read more about what happened in June and what the numbers tell us about what to expect in July.

What are your experiences with the coronavirus? Are you or someone you love affected by it? What questions do you have? We would like to hear from you, so please contact efite@timesfreepress.com or wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

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