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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, right, with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, left. They take very different approaches to the current surge in coronavirus infection in the region.

As new COVID-19 cases continue to rise locally, landing Chattanooga in the top four cities nationally for case growth rate, Hamilton County leaders have no plans to re-tighten previously eased restrictions that were intended to stem the spread of the global pandemic.

With 338 known active cases of the virus, which has killed 15 and infected 772 in less than 11 weeks since the first local case, Hamilton County is struggling to contain the case count, which, according to a study in the New York Times, doubles roughly every 10 days here.

The newspaper listed Chattanooga as the nation's fifth-fastest-growing area for new cases on Tuesday, and the fourth fastest as of Wednesday.

"One of the things that we have said since the beginning is, until there's a vaccine, we can expect surges," Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said at a news conference Tuesday, where she announced more than 180 new cases from across four days. "We may suppress this, we may have a surge later on. This virus is unpredictable, and we don't have anything other than social distancing and contact tracing to effectively fight it."

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Chattanooga COVID-19 cases mount

Barnes' message is consistent with that of other local leaders, including County Mayor Jim Coppinger who, under an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee, has the ultimate authority on how Hamilton County, including individual municipalities, regulates businesses and other public spaces.

In late April and early May, the county lifted previous restrictions on businesses, public spaces and even gatherings of up to 50 people. Since these restrictions have been lifted, and more community testing has been provided across the county, cases have grown at a higher rate each week.

County officials attribute much of the growth in cases to a boost in tests given — up by nearly 349% since May 1, from 3,226 total tests administered to 14,486. But positive cases have grown slightly faster, increasing by about 374%, from 163 to 772.

The remaining community spread, Coppinger says, has to do with individual behavior.

"We want to help the people that are exposed and that have the virus, but at the same time, the other people that want to get out and try to feed their families, or are going back to work or back to church, or those types of things are in the majority ... So what we've got to do is educate them how to continue to be in the majority," Coppinger said, after recognizing anecdotally that most locals are not wearing masks or practicing other social distancing guidelines in public. "But people have personal responsibility."

(READ MORE: How to wear a mask to prevent spread of COVID-19: Chattanooga officials, CDC provide tips)

Asked if the continued increase in new cases is cause enough for the county to consider reinstating previously lifted restrictions or implementing any new regulations to curtail community spread, Coppinger said hospitalization data doesn't call for such actions, despite the number of cases.

"We wake up every day and have discussions about where we are and where it's headed but, you know, there hasn't been any real indicator yet, as we can continue to test and continue to see people recover ... So not right now, no," Coppinger said.

"We've been prepared for these who are getting sick, and at one point we were told we needed to have a surge hospital of 1,500 beds available, but we're nowhere near our regular capacity. So to guess based on any modeling or statistic how long this is going to last is, it's changed so many times that it would be ridiculous for me to guess."

In the Chattanooga city limits, Mayor Andy Berke said he believes the available data suggests more than just natural growth with testing and should create pause for people planning to go out and for county officials tasked with regulating which spaces are open to the public.

"We know that both [testing and community spread] are happening. We need to continue to increase testing, but also recognize that there is an increased positivity rate going on that should concern everyone," Berke said Wednesday. "Everyone should be worried about the large uptick that we've seen over the last few weeks. When there is increased circulation and activity you can see more spread, just like is occurring in Chattanooga and in our entire region right now."

With cars and people returning to many businesses and areas that had previously been locked down but were reopened by Lee and Coppinger in recent weeks, Berke fears many locals are returning to pre-COVID-19 behavior at an unsafe rate.

"There are more people on the road. There are fewer people wearing masks. There's a greater return to life as normal. We have to be vigilant if we're going to slow the spread," he said. "We cannot and should not think that we can have life in the way that it existed four months ago without much greater community spread."

Given the lack of voluntary social distancing among residents, Berke suggested it's time for stronger safety measures to be implemented locally.

"I am going to continue to advocate for the strongest possible actions to keep people in our community safe. Everyone should have the health of themselves and their family in our community as a priority. That means taking the strongest possible actions on a business and personal level, to maintain the protocols that experts are pushing," Berke said.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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