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Every week, the Times Free Press will publish five essential things to know about the coronavirus pandemic in the Chattanooga region. For more updated case count numbers and other data related to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, visit timesfreepress.com/virus.

Five things to know about COVID-19 in the Chattanooga region for the week ending Oct. 23:

1. Coronavirus hospitalizations rise dramatically: Tennessee reached a record 1,300 COVID-19 hospitalizations this week.

Why it matters: Hospitalizations remain one of the most important metrics for gauging the pandemic's severity. Although hospitals are better prepared to treat COVID-19 patients than in the early days of the pandemic, the fear remains that high patient volumes will stress the health system to the point that quality of care is compromised and other "non-essential" — yet still important — medical procedures will be put on hold. Not to mention, these hospitalizations come with high financial and emotional costs to patients, families and hospital staff.

Read more about how COVID-19 spikes in rural areas are fueling the patient surge.

2. Hamilton County sheriff discharged: Sheriff Jim Hammond was discharged from the hospital on Friday following treatment for the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Tennessee's hospitalization crisis hit close to home when Hammond was admitted to the hospital this week for worsening COVID-19 symptoms. As someone over age 70, Hammond was at a higher risk of facing a serious and possibly fatal infection.

Read more about how Hammond is doing since leaving the hospital.

3. Tennessee reveals COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan: Health care workers and first responders will be first in line when supplies of the highly anticipated COVID-19 vaccine reach Tennessee

Why it matters: Although officials do not know how many vaccines Tennessee will receive or when, initial supplies will likely be extremely limited. The Tennessee Department of Health says it will get 2% of the nation's total vaccine allotment and has a plan for how to distribute the vaccines to those at highest risk of contracting and spreading the coronavirus, as well as risk of serious disease and death due to COVID-19.

Find out what populations are a priority for vaccination and the factors that could affect the state's plan.

4. Free testing resumes in some rural counties: With cases spiking in rural areas of Tennessee, the state is restarting free drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites in three counties this Saturday, including Grundy County.

Why it matters: Determining who's infected, isolating those people and tracing their contacts are key to controlling the spread of COVID-19. Rural communities are being hit especially hard by the coronavirus but typically have less access to health care services.

Read more about the free drive-thru testing on Saturday.

5. Hamilton County sees increased flu shot demand: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has increased vigilance around controlling the spread of respiratory diseases.

Why it matters: A "twindemic" of both COVID-19 and influenza would be detrimental to a health care system already struggling to keep up with the novel coronavirus. Nationwide, the CDC estimates 35.5 million people were sick with influenza in the 2018-2019 season, with more than 490,000 hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths from the disease. Unlike COVID-19, children are especially vulnerable to the flu, but the vaccine can greatly reduce one's risk of catching the virus.

Read more about where to get the flu shot from the Hamilton County Health Department.

What are your experiences with the coronavirus? Are you or someone you love affected by it? What questions do you have? We would like to hear from you, so please contact efite@timesfreepress.com or wmassey@timesfreepress.com.

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

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