Officials in Rhea County on Thursday said that a COVID-19 outbreak — possibly among migrant workers on a local farm — caused the county's number of confirmed cases to jump this week from 13 to 188, raising alarm as the Memorial Day holiday weekend approaches.
Rhea County Executive George Thacker said Thursday afternoon that he'd had no luck learning any details from state health officials about why the increase is happening, but he wants local residents to be especially cautious over the coming three-day weekend.
"I know this is Memorial Day weekend and you're going to have to be careful because the numbers have really jumped up," Thacker said in a video statement posted Wednesday night on his social media page.
"I think we need to be cautious and wear protection and go back to washing your hands," Thacker said Thursday. "I think we've all gotten a little lax here. We've been kind of a model county till this happened. "
In his video, Thacker observed, "Where most of the counties in Tennessee are going down, it looks like we're going to go up.
"If you're going to go out now knowing that we've got these numbers here, please try to wear a mask. I think it's so important now to wear a mask," Thacker said. "If you're going to be in a store, I would even suggest wearing a long-sleeved shirt."
In a social media post on Thursday, Dayton physician Dr. Craig Swafford said a large number of migrant laborers who work at a farm in Rhea County tested positive for the virus and have been isolated "and will remain so."
A staff member in his office in Dayton said Swafford was unavailable and seeing patients on Thursday.
"We are working to try and make sure that they have everything they need and will not be exposing other folks in our community," Swafford wrote.
In his post, Swafford also noted a confirmed case earlier this week at the La-Z-Boy plant and another involving a physician at a Life Care Center in Rhea County.
"[T]his physician was wearing personal protective equipment. Anyone that was exposed to the physician has been identified, and additional testing has been recommended for residents and employees that came in contact with the physician," Swafford said in his post. "The physician is now quarantined and will not return to work for an extended period of time. It has also been recommended by local physicians that the physician be tested and have a negative test before they are allowed to resume their duties."
La-Z-Boy officials earlier this week told the Times Free Press an employee arrived at work and a battery of questions indicated that the employee was not feeling well. That employee was sent home to self-quarantine, officials said.
La-Z-Boy earlier closed the Dayton plant due to the national COVID-19 outbreak and then reopened on April 27 with 540 employees. Earlier this week, that number had been boosted to 715 workers, according to the company, which also said contact tracing was being done to find people the employee had contact so they could have 14 days of self-isolation.
Swafford said in his post that local experience with the coronavirus diverges from the state's or the CDC's and he worries infections might last longer than thought earlier.
"It has been the experience of the medical staff at Rhea Medical Center that some people that have been infected have taken over three weeks to post a negative test afterwards. This means that they are potentially contagious for longer than CDC guidelines or Tennessee Department of Health recommends. Therefore, your local physicians and hospital recommends repeat testing for everyone that tests positive before they resume contact with the general population," Swafford said.
Swafford wants Rhea County residents to work with local medical officials so they have a sense of the situation.
"These recommendations made by your local health care providers, hospital and county government cannot be enforced as law so there will be a lot of individual responsibility that has to take place," he said. "The Tennessee Department of Health views contact tracing and enforcement of quarantine as their sole responsibility and will not allow local officials to participate unless we were directly involved with your diagnosis or treatment. Therefore, I recommend testing at our local hospital or your local physician's office instead of the department of health, that way your local officials can have insight to the number of people affected.
"We can help ensure your access to repeat testing for safe resumption of work and contact with the general population and any medical needs during your convalescence," Swafford said in the post.
Thacker also urged those who want to get a test for the virus to go to the Rhea County Medical Center in Dayton or the health department in Evensville. There are also a number of locations in the Chattanooga region where free testing is available.
Thacker said he initially agreed that Gov. Bill Lee's decision to reopen the economy was a good idea until the spike happened. Now he's frustrated.
"While other counties are going down and he's working on taking everything and opening back up. That was fine until we had this number pop up," Thacker said.
"Here it is Memorial Day weekend and you've got these numbers going up, you know it's not fair to our small county and it makes it tough on me what to do next. We've got to protect our people, too, and at the end of the day that's what we're going to do," he said.
"It's just tough when you're following the whole state," he said. "We were fine until yesterday."
Statewide, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increased to 18,961 on Thursday, up 429 from Wednesday's total of 18,532, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. There have been 313 deaths from the virus statewide.
In Tennessee, Bledsoe County has reported 607 cases and 1 deaths; Bradley County 89 cases and 1 death; Coffee County 63 cases and 0 deaths; Franklin County 44 cases and 1 death; Grundy County 31 cases and 1 death; Marion County 35 cases and 1 death; McMinn County 124 cases and 12 deaths; Meigs County 22 cases and 0 deaths; Polk County 14 cases and 0 deaths; and Rhea County now tallies 188 cases and 0 deaths, according to state records.
Looking ahead to possible holiday gatherings and activities, Thacker urged local residents to think about their older family members and friends and to take every precaution they can to stem the spread.