While the White House focused on promising news around vaccine development, the weekly report from its COVID-19 task force to governors this week centered grimly on the "aggressive, unrelenting, expanding broad community spread across the country, reaching most counties, without evidence of improvement but rather, further deterioration."
For Tennessee, the report said, "Current mitigation efforts are inadequate and must be increased to flatten the curve to sustain the health system for both COVID and non-COVID emergencies."
Essentially all counties in Tennessee are experiencing moderate or high levels of community spread as the effects of the virus have "become deeper and unyielding," according to the report.
The state reported 400 new cases per 100,000 people, double the previous week's rate and ahead of the national average of 294.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee health commissioner, said during a news conference Tuesday that some of the most concerning metrics are the state's record numbers of new cases, the high test positivity rate and growing number of hospitalizations.
"Our seven-day positivity rate is 13.9%. In order to ensure appropriate identification and control of this virus, we want to have this number in the 5% or less range," Piercey said. "The recent high positivity rates really worry us because they tell us people aren't getting tested."
She said that the state will expand COVID-19 testing hours at sites across Tennessee on Monday with a goal of returning results in 48 hours, acknowledging that's a lofty goal considering labs across the state are currently overwhelmed.
In Hamilton County, tests at the health department's Alstom site at 1125 Riverfront Parkway are currently taking four to six days for results.
Hospital bed and intensive care unit capacity are waning as limited and overextended health care workers struggle to keep up with the demands of more patients, Piercey said.
To slow the spread, the White House group recommended limiting indoor restaurant capacity to less than 25% and limiting bar hours until new cases and test positivity rates drop. Last week, the White House recommended a cap of 50% on restaurants.
White House coronavirus task for report for TennesseeView
A study published last week in the journal Nature found that a majority of infections were coming from a small group of places and restricting the occupancy levels at these types of establishments would work better to slow the spread of COVID-19 than a widespread shutdown order.
Yet, state and local leaders show little sign of changing course while the coronavirus pandemic rages to unprecedented levels.
Gov. Bill Lee, speaking during a Tuesday news conference, acknowledged the surging cases and hospitalizations. He asked residents to make "good, common-sense decisions" with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
Lee said all options remain on the table for stopping the spread but said he will not implement any new restrictions on businesses. Mask mandates will remain the decision of county mayors, and he will not restrict the sizes of crowds in businesses or public gatherings.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is taking a similar stance, declining to place new restrictions on businesses. At the end of September, Coppinger followed the state's lead in lifting bans on gathering sizes and restaurants. The mayor will announce Thursday whether he will extend the countywide mask mandate.
Coppinger has said regulating the county's businesses and ensuring safety for more than 350,000 county residents has been the most difficult part of his long career in politics.
While the county mayor has received backlash for his decision to implement a countywide mask requirement in July, he is also receiving pressure to impose stricter measures in the area or pressure neighboring counties to implement mask mandates of their own. Whitfield County, Georgia, which borders Tennessee, is reporting the worst outbreak in that state for the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 259 new infections, though this data does not represent the full extent of new cases due to ongoing technical issues with the reporting system. The reporting issues are expected to be resolved by the end of the week.
The health department also reported 115 hospitalizations and 32 people in the intensive care unit with the virus, data the department said is accurate and not affected by the technical issues.
The surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have repeatedly broken local records in the past two weeks. On Tuesday, Hamilton County Schools announced it would change reopening phases, sending older students home for three days a week of virtual learning after the Thanksgiving holiday because of the surge.
The health department reported an additional COVID-19 death Wednesday — a Black female between the ages of 11 and 20 years old — marking 127 for the county. This is the first death for the 11-to-20-year-old age group in the county and the third death in the county of a resident under the age of 20.
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