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The Hamilton County Health Department reported 260 new coronavirus cases Tuesday — a record for single-day new infections — as other new reports painted an increasingly grim picture of the pandemic across the region.

In its latest weekly report, the White House COVID-19 Task Force recommends that Tennessee limit restaurant indoor capacity to less than 50% and restrict hours until cases and the percent positive of new tests decreases. The White House report, dated Sunday, is sent to state leaders each week and was obtained by the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Hamilton County also reported 104 hospitalizations Tuesday, the most since the mid-July surge that led to the deadliest month for COVID-19 with 27 deaths in August. Of those current patients, 30 were in the intensive care unit, which is the highest number of ICU coronavirus patients reported in local hospitals since Aug. 8.

The county is averaging 154 new cases a day in the past week, an all-time high. Large increases in new cases can sometimes be attributed to a data backlog, but Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said in an email that was not the case with Tuesday's report.

The case increase cannot be attributed to an increase in testing, because the seven-day moving average of new tests is 1,229 per day — only slightly higher when compared to the past three weeks — with a positivity rate of 12.5% in the past seven days, according to health department data analyzed by the Times Free Press. Tuesday's record new cases caused the test positivity rate to jump 2 percentage points.

Rae Bond, chair of the local Joint COVID-19 Task Force, called the recent trends "sobering" during a news briefing on Tuesday, and said medical providers are weary as they continue to care for the growing number of patients.

"Many physicians, nurses and other providers are wearing masks and additional PPE 10 to 12 hours a day, and I think it's discouraging for them to be caring for those suffering from COVID and then to see so many people in our region ignoring the simple safety measures that can slow down transmission," Bond said, adding that not overwhelming the health care system is an important reason not to ease up on the safety practices that work to reduce the spread of disease.

The White House report said communities in Tennessee should take the following actions immediately: "Do not gather without a mask with individuals living outside of your household; always wear a mask in public places; stop gatherings beyond immediate household until cases and test positivity [decline]; get your flu shot."

The health department continues to report that a significant amount of transmission is occurring at small gatherings and among people ages 21 to 30, Bond said.

"Even if you're outdoors with others, you still need to wear a mask and maintain appropriate physical distancing," Bond said. " We can get through this pandemic, and we can do it in a way that best protects individuals, and it protects our ability to earn a living. But that requires that we all kind of get with the program."

Bond said that local COVID-19 test turnaround times have increased slightly due to increased demand for lab services across the state and country.

A report from Vanderbilt University Medical Center released Tuesday shows the virus continues to hit communities without mask mandates and fewer public precautions hardest. The combined COVID-19 death rate for the 67 Tennessee counties without mask mandates was about four times higher per capita than the 11 counties that implemented the earliest public face mask requirements, based on data through the first week of October.

Through a data use agreement with the state, Vanderbilt was able to acquire data on the date of death, which is typically earlier than when a state reports the death publicly.

Researchers from Vanderbilt's department of health policy noted in a news release that "due to these lags, Tennessee's current view of COVID-19 deaths really only represents a clear picture of deaths through the first week of October — meaning that many of the deaths reported each day are tied to infections that occurred in September, before the recent surge in cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee."

Among Tennesseans who have died, an average of 14 days passed between the test date and the date of death, according to the Vanderbilt report.

On Tuesday, the state reported 63 new coronavirus deaths, bringing the total number of Tennesseans who've lost their lives due to the virus to 3,673 since the pandemic began, including 118 Hamilton County residents. Deaths are reported in the county where a person resides.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

 

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