This story was updated at 5:05 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, with more information.
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Hamilton County announced its first community COVID-19 screening site Tuesday, the same day the county hit 50 known cases and confirmed its fourth local death from the novel coronavirus.
According to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, patients referred by the department or a physician can be tested at a drive-thru county emissions testing site beginning Wednesday.
After weeks of criticism for slow testing, the county has had two major strides in the past week, first the announcement of the first local testing facility and now this, the area's first community screening facility.
"This drive-thru testing is an extremely important component to bringing back some normalcy to the community more quickly and also to minimize the danger to our community through more testing," County Mayor Jim Coppinger said at a news conference late Tuesday.
The rollout of screening was slow due to a backlog of tests in state and regional labs and a lack of personal protective equipment for local health care workers within the county.
Now, with the county lab testing 75 local samples per day— with the expectation of up to 300 per day as the lab adds new equipment and personnel— Coppinger says he is optimistic about community testing so long as it is reserved for those who are referred and actually exhibiting symptoms.
"You don't need to be coming or calling in with no symptoms and say, 'I just want to be tested,' that's not enough to be tested," Coppinger said. "There is not enough to go around for everyone in this community, in this county, in this state or in this country, so we don't want to be testing people that are not symptomatic."
Patients who are tested will be given a letter of isolation requiring their motion restriction as soon as swabs are taken and are expected to act as though they are contagious.
Also Tuesday, the county announced that there are now 50 confirmed cases out of just over 700 tests completed, including now a fourth death in the county.
Though the county did not release any other identifying information about the deceased, health department administrator Becky Barnes said the victim was "an older person."
According to data provided by the county reflecting 42 of the 50 cases (with eight too new to have been categorized), the confirmed cases include 16 people between the ages of 18-49, 10 between 50-64 years old and 16 in the most vulnerable age group of 65 years or older.
So far, each of the local deaths has been confirmed as someone at least 65 or "an older person" by Barnes.
The county also reports 223 people in related quarantine, 17 people now hospitalized by the virus and 26 total local residents recovered from the virus.
With tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths all growing rapidly over the past week since the local lab opened, county officials warn of a shift in statistics in the near future that may not indicate a worsening situation so much as more information.
"Now what more testing means is, ladies and gentlemen, that were going to have some more positives, right?" Coppinger said.
"It only stands to reason that we will," he said, adding, "so it shouldn't be alarming."
Barnes agreed, warning that Hamilton County has not hit its peak and is still responsible for determining how bad the spread will get when that time comes.
"We're trying really hard as a community, as a state and as a country to not have a high peak, and that's why we are pleading with everybody to have as much isolation of themselves with just their immediate families. That's how we will do that," Barnes said, adding that successful social distancing will determine how high our local peak gets. "However, I don't think that we — even if we're having a flattened curve— we are not in the downside of this at all."
In addition to numbers of affected Hamilton County residents going up, Barnes said more information about local hospitalizations will come out this week, reflecting patients from outside of the county and state, and likely presenting even higher case numbers.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.