This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on March 30, 2020, with more information.
A new COVID-19 death and increased community spread of the coronavirus in Hamilton County spurred a somber warning from county health officials on Monday.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department announced that a third person had died of COVID-19 in the county — following one local resident and one person from out of town — amid increasing signs of community spread.
According to department administrator Becky Barnes, 10 of the 39 total cases in the county got the virus from direct contact with another case, showing a dangerous trend of community spread.
"This signifies that there is a large amount of community spread in Hamilton County," Barnes said at a news conference late Monday, saying there are dangerous gatherings still taking place across the county.
"In the beginning, each patient's contacts were numerous as social distancing measures hadn't taken place. Staff then became encouraged as the number of contacts reported by new cases became much smaller," Barnes explained. "Unfortunately, in recent times, cases are now reporting more contacts than would be expected with social distancing. This means there are still people who are not abiding by social distancing guidelines."
Additionally, Barnes says 44% of cases were initially hospitalized and others were later, noting that many patients are not healing quickly.
Barnes says the cases range in age from 25-87 and the local median age is just 58.
With locals across a broad age range and levels of contact falling ill, Barnes encouraged Hamilton County residents to ramp-up their social distancing measures.
"I cannot stress the importance of social distancing," Barnes said, citing reports of outdoor gatherings and businesses ignoring social distancing in the county. "If the spread of COVID-19 in Hamilton County is to be contained, this kind of activity has to stop."
On top of the previous hand washing, cough guarding and physical distancing recommendations in place, Barnes asked citizens to:
— Stay home with only people in your household when at all possible.
— Plan trips to the store to avoid frequent trips and potential exposure.
— Send only one person to the store.
— Do not send anyone who is coughing, fevered or exhibiting any other cold or flu-like symptoms in public.
— Wash your hands before going to the store.
— Avoid touching your face before you can wash your hands.
— Use sanitizing wipes to clean shopping carts.
— Minimize your time in the store.
— Do not have lingering contact with people in the store, whether you know them or not.
— Use credit and debit cards in lieu of cash.
— Do not hoard supplies, but anticipate shopping for two weeks of necessary items.
"I cannot tell you how important these measures are to stop the virus in our community," Barnes said. "This is the primary means that we have. This is how we do it."
Barnes told the Times Free Press after the news conference that the state had, since late last week, provided "a good deal" of additional testing and screening supplies to the county, which is struggling with a shortage of swabs and testing materials like many communities.
She said it is unclear when the county will be able to begin community screening in its new lab, which is now only testing swabs from hospitals and first responders, but that this influx of materials will help community testing become available sooner. Since its first day on Friday, the new lab has churned out 75 test results, but it is expected to grow as high as 300 test results per day as new equipment is implemented in the next week.
As testing remains scarce in the county, County Health Officer Dr. Paul Hendricks is asking local health care providers to treat symptomatic or probable patients of the virus as positive cases.
"If a patient makes you suspicious enough for COVID-19 testing, that patient is considered to have the virus unless proven otherwise," Hendricks said. "From the moment of that decision, your patient should be given a mask and advised about the same isolation procedures that all COVID-19 patients need to follow. This is to protect their family, other close contacts, and the public as a whole."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
Some Hamilton County first responders more transparent than others about possible COVID-19 exposures