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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A clinician carries a COVID-19 test at the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Local and federal officials are warning Tennesseans about the risk of spreading COVID-19 during the Thanksgiving holiday as the virus surges in Southeast Tennessee at alarming levels.

On Thursday, Becky Barnes, health department administrator, offered a variety of options for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

"We understand that families and friends want to celebrate this holiday season," Barnes said in a statement. "So we want everyone to know how they can stay safe and prevent the virus from spreading."

The lowest-risk option involves celebrating only with household members and using technology to connect with others virtually. Sporting events or parades could be viewed on TV rather than attending in person.

(READ MORE: Tennessee hospitals with more patients from areas without mask mandates still hit hardest by COVID-19, Vanderbilt report says)

Higher risk activities include going to or hosting gatherings of non-household members. The larger the gathering, the greater the risk of getting the virus. The same goes for hosting events indoors and with close contact with others, such as hugging, the health department said.

For people traveling for the holidays, the health department warned the likelihood of transmission increases the more contact people have with non-household members, such as traveling by plane or bus.

A White House COVID-19 Task Force report on Tennessee from Nov. 1 stated residents should not gather with people outside their households until new case rates and test positivity rates drop. The report also urged people to wear masks to stop the spread. The counties in Tennessee and North Georgia surrounding Hamilton County do not require people to wear masks, a point of growing concern for local leaders as area hospitalizations are filling county hospital beds.

On Thursday, the health department reported 165 new infections and 87 hospitalizations with the virus. The county is averaging 110 new cases a day in the past week. There are 1,244 active cases in the county.

The data continues the monthlong surge in Chattanooga. The White House task force considers Hamilton County in the "red zone" for positivity and spread of the virus.

In the past month, cases have spread throughout the county. However, there was sharp growth in new cases in the 37379 and 37343 ZIP codes, which include Soddy-Daisy and Hixson. The 37341 ZIP code, which includes Harrison, and the neighboring 37363, which includes Ooltewah and Collegedale, saw increases as well. Each of those ZIP codes reported a more than 40% increase in cases since Oct. 5.

(READ MORE: Five data points to watch as Chattanooga braces for a winter COVID-19 surge)

The county is averaging an 11.6% positivity rate for new tests in the past week as local leaders have warned about community spread of the virus.

Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert, said areas need to keep positivity rates below 5% to control the spread of COVID-19. Rates below 5% mean an infected person is spreading the virus to less than one other person. Rates above that threshold can mean an infected person is spreading the virus to multiple people.

"Community spread hazards two things: One is individuals, because the spread means there are more cases, more people infected," he said. "And the more people infected the more people will need medical care, be hospitalized. And then two, three weeks later we'll see the deaths start coming up. Even though we're better at caring for people, there will an increase in deaths."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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