Chattanooga's COVID-19 outbreak shows no sign of slowing, with community spread occurring and new cases coming from all ZIP codes, workers, living situations and demographics, officials said Monday.
"We're seeing a cross section of workers in all different venues," Becky Barnes, Hamilton County health administrator, said during a news conference Monday. "There's a lot of cases also that we have no epi-link to — they test positive, they have no idea where they got it — so there's community spread."
Barnes said the agency is the busiest it's been thus far, pulling staff from other departments and adding new staff almost daily in order to keep up with the demands of the pandemic.
On Saturday, the health department experienced its highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations with 37, although that number returned to 31 as of Monday, with nine people in intensive care.
At the same time, the numbers of local available hospital beds and ICU beds are at their lowest point. At least part of that is due to hospitals ramping up elective procedures, among many other kinds of business operations reopening across the region.
"The virus is unpredictable, and at any given time you can have young people that are acutely ill, you can have people that are 95 and they recover," Barnes said, adding that the health department tracks the number of people in the hospital, but doesn't know the details of individual cases.
Local leaders, including Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, have said hospitalizations are a key metric to understand the severity of the outbreak. Case count data is subject to how much testing is being done, and the vast majority of people with coronavirus do not require hospitalization. But the more severe an outbreak is, the more people with COVID-19 wind up in hospitals.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Hamilton County have hovered in the lower 30s since May 30 — higher than any other point.
After a record-high number of new cases were reported on Friday with 106, the number of new cases announced since has been lower than previous weeks. The health department reported 28 new people with the virus on Monday, bringing the county total to 1,486.
"If you follow our numbers, they go up and down, they fluctuate — some of it can be just how long it takes labs to turn over the tests," Barnes said. "We are ... adding staff almost on a daily basis to assist with contact tracing."
Barnes said the county's lab at Baylor School is processing its 300 tests per day maximum, and the county is having to use commercial labs every day as well to keep up with testing volumes.
"I think that people have somewhat lost their enthusiasm for staying home, social distancing, especially people who have not seen the direct effects of COVID-19 in their family. They may be more likely to think it's safe to go out and do activities that they would've done prior to the pandemic," Barnes said.
"We would really urge everyone to take our advice, take our urging and practice all the measures you have afforded to you to keep you and your family safe."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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