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/.
For the week ending June 12:
1. Hamilton County shatters previous COVID-19 records: In the past week, the Hamilton County Health Department announced the largest single-day increase in coronavirus infections and the largest number of people hospitalized or in the intensive care unit with the virus thus far.
Why it matters: On June 5, the county announced 106 new COVID-19 infections, and on Thursday 53 people, including 22 in ICU, were hospitalized. Officials say it is important to follow data trends over time rather than focus on single-day jumps, but the growth in hospitalizations continues a trend that began May 30, and the county is now averaging 60 new cases a day over the past week. The number of people currently hospitalized in Hamilton County is an important indicator of the pandemic's severity. That's because it's not subject to testing trends, and most people with COVID-19 will not need supportive medical care, so higher hospitalization numbers reflect higher disease prevalence in the community. Hospital data may include residents from other counties.
2. Health department stretched thin as community spread continues, acknowledges cases now linked to reopening businesses: This week, the health department announced the virus is spreading in the community, across businesses and all demographics, signaling for the first time that the spread is due in part to the reopening.
Why it matters: Throughout May, county officials said the virus was spreading among essential workers (those who were working all along) and in multigenerational homes. This new information now links the spread beyond those communities and into the wider population. The department said this week it is the busiest it has 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. Contact tracing to isolate infected individuals becomes increasingly difficult once community spread occurs, and that's one of the only tools we have to fight the coronavirus until a treatment or vaccine is developed.
Read more about how community spread is stretching the health department thin.
3. Doctors say far too few Chattanoogans are wearing face masks: As COVID-19 continues to spread in the community, medical experts fear county residents are not following the best practices to keep one another safe.
Why it matters: The more we learn about the coronavirus and its transmission, the more experts say everyone wearing masks is key — especially as businesses reopen — until a safe and effective vaccine becomes widely available. The virus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets released when someone speaks, coughs or sneezes. Masks help stop the spread of these droplets, especially when people are in close quarters with one another. Chattanooga residents have been slow to adopt widespread mask wearing, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has said he does not plan to enforce mask-wearing policies for the county. However, experts say stricter mask policies in public places and businesses would help normalize mask wearing and save lives.
Read more about why experts worry that masks and other precautions are missing.
4. Tennessee resumes distribution of free face masks made by sock company: Gov. Bill Lee announced Wednesday the state is back to handing out its free face masks after distribution was stopped over concerns about an antimicrobial chemical in the fabric.
Why it matters: Lee on June 1 halted statewide distribution of the 5 million masks he had purchased from the sock manufacturer Renfro Corp., following a Nashville television station's news report raising concerns about the safety of a microbial silver-based product Silvadur 930 Flex used to treat the fabric in the masks. Political opponents had previously criticized the mask's sock-like material; however, the latest controversy over whether the masks harmed people stalled free mask distribution in Hamilton County at a time when cases are surging. Chattanooga has been sitting on an emergency shipment of 20,000 masks needed for vulnerable communities hardest hit by the virus. Local distribution is resuming since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the masks are safe.
Read more about the controversy.
5. Free testing events over the weekend: Hardy Elementary, Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church and Ooltewah Elementary School will be open as testing sites this weekend.
Why it matters: Testing provides more data about the severity of the outbreak in the county and helps people know their status. Public health experts say testing is key to controlling the pandemic in order to find and isolate infected individuals, including those who show few or no symptoms, especially as more businesses and activities resume.
Read more about where to get tested for coronavirus.
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