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 17:
1. Hospitals strain as patient increases continue: The number of COVID-19 patients in Hamilton County's hospitals continues to increase, with an all-time high of 114 patients hospitalized in the county as of Thursday.
Why it matters: Although hospitalizations dropped back down to 81 on Friday, they continue their upward trend and remain at their highest point since the start of the pandemic. It's normal for hospitalization numbers to fluctuate, and the data include unconfirmed COVID-19 patients who are awaiting test results, but the increase aligns with state officials reporting that hospitals in metro regions across Tennessee are becoming more strained. 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 and surge plans will need to be activated. It also could mean hospitals will need to cut back on elective surgeries and procedures, which would be detrimental to both the health of the community and hospitals' bottom lines. Hospital officials say we're not there yet, but local leaders are looking at contingency plans, such as an overflow hospital at the Alstom site, if the trend continues. The county also reported a record 175 new cases in one day on Monday.
Read what officials said about the worsening trend of hospitalizations and new cases.
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2. Cases surging across the region: New coronavirus cases in some of the area's rural counties are increasing at a significantly faster rate than Hamilton County.
Why it matters: Because Chattanooga is a regional hub for medical care, its hospitals can be heavily impacted by outbreaks in neighboring and outlying counties. More-populated Hamilton County has seen its own recent surge in new COVID-19 cases and is home to the majority of the region's new cases overall, but new cases are also increasing in surrounding counties, and officials find some of those increases alarming. In the past week, DeKalb County, Alabama, averaged 7.12 new COVID-19 cases a day per 10,000 residents, followed by Whitfield County, Georgia, which averaged 6.3 new cases a day per 10,000 residents. By comparison, Hamilton County averaged 2.8 new cases per 10,000 residents in the same time frame. More than half of the COVID-19 patients in Hamilton County hospitals as of Friday are from other counties.
Read more about where the coronavirus outbreak is worsening in the Chattanooga region and how Whitfield County hit a new record for daily COVID-19 cases.
3. Testing woes return: Tennessee is falling behind on COVID-19 testing as outbreaks grow more severe and slow processing times resurface as a national issue.
Why it matters: Despite the United States conducting more COVID-19 tests than ever, most states — including Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia — are falling behind on testing as their outbreaks grow more severe and slow processing times resurface as a national issue. Testing remains a cornerstone of the public health response to COVID-19 until a safe, effective vaccine is readily available. Until then, finding out who's infected, isolating those people and identifying people they've contacted so those people can be tested, too, are key to containing the virus. There's also a great economic need for testing as more businesses begin relying on testing employees to safely return to work. However, some labs across the state are taking between five and six days to run a sample once receiving it in the mail, and officials say it may take several weeks to catch up on the backlog.
Read more about how Tennessee fell behind on COVID-19 testing and how Georgia and Alabama compare.
4. Racial disparities continue, but Black people become more impacted: Six of the 10 COVID-19 deaths reported so far in July in Hamilton County have been Black residents.
Why it matters: The coronavirus is widening existing health inequalities in the county and across the country. According to data released by The New York Times from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Hispanic people in America are three times more likely to be infected and two times more likely to die from the virus than white people. A similar disparity is continuing in Chattanooga with around half of all confirmed cases in the county among Hispanic residents. Since July 1, cases among Black residents increased by 121%, more than double the increase among white residents. Despite accounting for just 6% of the county population, Hispanic residents are a quarter of all local deaths. Similarly, Black residents represent 19% of the population and around a third of the deaths. The recent deaths, following what was already the deadliest month for the virus in June, are concerning for local health care providers and underscore the risks of the virus.
5. Return to school on the horizon: Local school districts are gearing up for how to handle the new school year as the pandemic grows.
What to know: Whitfield County Schools announced this week its plan to reopen schools for face-to-face instruction as COVID-19 cases in the county continue to increase at an alarming rate. In its plan, there is no scenario in which high school students will be going to school every day of the week. Instead, high schoolers attending in-person classes will go twice a week and participate in online learning the rest of the week. The decision to include online learning in the district's first option differs from other districts in Northwest Georgia. In Catoosa, Dade, Chattooga and Murray counties, the plan as of now is to move forward with in-school instruction and online learning only as a back-up plan or a plan for parents who do not want to send their children to school. Hamilton County Schools' plan for reopening includes four phases and a ladder of school responses that can be adjusted based on pandemic data in Hamilton County. The phases range from all-online education when the pandemic is most severe to full service in-person education when case counts are under control. In between are hybrid options, including schedules that have students attend two days a week in person. Parents can also opt for their children to participate only online or the hybrid format.
Read more about school reopening plans in North Georgia, what Hamilton County school board District 1 candidates have to say about the reopening and how some doctors think reopening schools at this time is "insane."
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