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Every week, the Times Free Press will publish five 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 10:

1. Mask up, Chattanooga: People in Hamilton County are now required to wear a face mask or covering when in public.

Why it matters: For weeks, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger strongly urged citizens to wear face coverings to help curb the spread of COVID-19 but said he would not require people to do so. However, on the heels of the deadliest month for the virus and hospitalizations again near record highs, the mayor changed his tune and announced a mask mandate this week. Coppinger said the move will help businesses by making mask rules uniform, but the county will also lean on businesses to help with enforcement. With mask wearing becoming increasingly political, some business owners say the new rule could put them in a bind. Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials say they are unlikely to penalize people who do not comply with the $50 fine or jail time, opting instead to educate reluctant individuals. There are also some circumstances in which masks won't be required, including during religious activities.

Read more about what you need to know about the face mask mandate and why doctors want the governor to create a statewide mask requirement.

 

2. Hospitalizations on the rise: The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Tennessee and across the region continues to climb, with Hamilton County posting a single-day record of 71 coronavirus patients on Thursday.

Why it matters: Although Hamilton County COVID-19 hospitalizations fell to 66 on Friday, that's still more patients than the previous single-day record of 65 patients on June 10. Most people with COVID-19 recover without hospital care, but the increasing number of hospitalized patients is the direct result of accelerated COVID-19 transmission across the state, experts say. On July 8, Tennessee posted its single highest case count to date, with more than 2,400 new cases reported. At the same time, a report from Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Southeast Tennessee increased 40% from July 1 to July 8, with Tennessee on track to reach 1,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide on or about July 14. A concern with this rate of growth in cases and hospitalizations is that the health system may become too stressed to handle the patient load. While that hasn't happened yet, local and state health officials say they're monitoring the situation closely, and it's expected to get worse before seeing improvement. The increase also comes amid national reports that personal protective equipment supplies are again running low, and some health systems are being forced to ration their supplies.

Read more about the local and statewide spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

 

3. County backslides to June peak: Hamilton County is averaging 68 new cases a day this week, mirroring the numbers during the worst part of the pandemic so far in June.

Why it matters: As mobility increases, it is not unexpected that virus transmission will increase, leading to more cases and increased hospitalizations. However, practicing social distancing, wearing a mask and proper hand washing are proven ways to limit the spread of COVID-19. Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said the county's decision to require face masks in public is a promising tool that should help slow the spread of disease, but it could take several weeks before seeing the results. Experts originally hoped COVID-19 transmission would slow during summer months, similar to other respiratory illnesses, but it's clear now that's not the case. Continued transmission will pose even more challenges in the fall as people migrate indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more easily, and we begin to grapple with flu season. Time will tell if Chattanooga can flatten the curve to avoid further illness, economic damage and delays in restarting school.

Read more about what the current COVID-19 numbers suggest could happen.

 

4. Study of COVID-19 in wastewater continues: The city of Chattanooga will continue sampling the county's wastewater to estimate the outbreak of coronavirus.

Why it matters: Throughout May, the city's wastewater treatment center sent samples to a Massachusetts-based company for review. A sample from May 26 projected there to be 12,500 coronavirus infections in the county at a time when the Hamilton County Health Department had reported 717 infections. The city announced Thursday it will continue sending samples into 2021 and the data could be used to measure the outbreak among those not getting tested.

Read more about the potential, as well as the limitations, of the wastewater study.

 

5. Church gathering potential superspreader event: Westmore Church of God in Cleveland held a massive regional meeting last month and in the weeks since dozens of coronavirus cases have been reported.

Why it matters: Superspreader events risk taxing health departments that scramble to contact everyone who may have come into contact with the virus and the contacts of all of those people, too. It is unclear how much information the church has given to help in this process and what steps are being taken to notify the hundreds of people who attended the meeting, since the church did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, it appears the virus has infected Church of God leaders at the state and international offices. 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.

Read more about what we know about the outbreak in the Church of God denomination.

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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