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Contributed photo / Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stands beside boxes holding a shipment of 20,000 face masks that he requested from the state to help protect citizens as local COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb.

Hamilton County reported 96 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the largest single day increase in new cases locally to date, at the same time coronavirus hospitalizations reached their highest point since the start of the pandemic.

Data from the Hamilton County Health Department revealed there are now 29 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, including 17 people in intensive care, up from 27 and 13 on Thursday. Hospital data may include residents from outside Hamilton County.

Friday's new cases brings the county total to 939 COVID-19 positive, with 446 of those people recovered and 478 — more than half of all cases ever reported — currently active, according to health department data.

The surge in new cases is due in part to more testing and discovery of asymptomatic individuals or those with mild symptoms, but the growth in hospitalizations indicates a worsening outbreak.

Since the majority of coronavirus cases don't require supportive medical care, some experts say data on hospitalizations — which generally occur a week or two after infection — is a good representation of an outbreak's severity. That's because case count data is subject to how much testing is being done, but the more severe an outbreak is, the more people with COVID-19 wind up in hospitals.

At the request of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and other local leaders, Chattanooga received a shipment of 20,000 masks from the state's Unified Command group Friday morning so that citizens who needed face masks could have access in order to prevent further spread of the virus.

"It is so critical for us to see personal protective equipment distributed to people and being used, particularly as our numbers are going up," Berke said. "That trend has continued, so we continue to ask people to use the strongest possible measures - including wearing a mask."

Berke says the plan on how to distribute the masks is still in the works, but that they will likely be handed out by local nonprofit groups and through food distribution systems, police and firefighters.

"We're going to try a whole bunch of different channels to get them to the people who need them," Berke said. "Lots of people who are going to work and are in places where they may not have personal protective equipment, or they're just in places that are close confined spaces, they're at huge risk for contracting COVID-19, and we want to provide them with personal protective equipment if they don't have it."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he's glad the state was able to ship more masks to Chattanooga because it will take everybody working together and doing their part to slow the spread of coronavirus.

"We do have a serious problem in Chattanooga, but we have to overcome that and get these face masks out and educate the people involved to know how to keep themselves from getting [the virus]," Gardenhire said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has said on numerous occasions that hospitalization data is a key metric he follows to indicate whether stricter social distancing measures should be reinstated.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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