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The coronavirus is surging in Hamilton County, continuing three weeks of rising cases and hospitalizations that bring the county back near its worst peak of cases during the summer.

On Monday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 100 new cases of COVID-19, the sixth straight day of at least 100 new cases. The county is averaging 111 new cases a day in the past week, the highest level since mid-July when the county averaged 121 new cases a day.

At the same time, the health department reported 92 hospitalizations on Monday, 36 of which were Hamilton County residents. The total hospitalization number is the highest reported figure since July and represents a 56% increase in the past two weeks.

Similarly, the county is averaging a positivity rate of 9.8% for new tests in the past week. Again, this marks the highest seven-day average for new COVID-19 tests since July.

The county is now in the red zone for the coronavirus, according to guidelines from the Harvard Global Health Institute, meaning there is uncontrolled community spread of the virus.

On Monday, there were six available intensive care unit beds for treating the virus. However, local leaders have said that number alone can be misleading because it represents the number of beds available that are now staffed and not the actual number of beds. Local hospitals have previously reported having staff on call to increase bed capacity if needed.

In September and early October, the majority of new cases in Southeast Tennessee were driven by the virus spreading in rural communities that had previously not been affected as severely as urban centers. While cases spiked in places such as Grundy County, the virus seemed to flatten off in Chattanooga.

Cases in Hamilton County began rising at the start of October and have steadily increased since. The county averaged 61 new COVID-19 cases a day on Oct. 1. At the time, 55 people were hospitalized with the virus.

Spikes in hospitalizations often follow several weeks behind spikes in new cases, with COVID-19 deaths following several weeks after surges in hospitalizations. In August, the deadliest month so far, the virus killed 27 county residents after the month-long surge of new cases in July.

The county health department has reported three new COVID-19 deaths since Friday, bringing the county total to 109.

On Friday, Becky Barnes, Hamilton County health department administrator, said in a written statement there were no specific clusters driving the current increase. She said it was unclear whether the current case spike is a "normal fluctuation" or something more.

"There were spikes in July and August, with a flattening in September. Although we have not yet reached the July numbers, we are not sure where this current spike will go," Barnes said at the time. "Anytime daily case counts begin to increase, it means we as a community need to increase our efforts and vigilance against the virus."

Hamilton County remains under a mask mandate, though local leaders chose to follow Gov. Bill Lee's lead in lifting restrictions on large gatherings at the end of September.

As the virus nears seven and a half months in Tennessee, Dr. M. Kevin Smith, president of the Tennessee Medical Association, urged people to continue wearing masks and staying vigilant against the virus.

"As we enter the cooler months of the year and the holiday season, we are seeing an increase in COVID case rates as more people are coming together indoors and the need for us to all wear masks is now more important than ever," Smith said in a statement. "Your doctors are wearing masks, and we urge you to wear them as well to protect others. The virus is spread through respiratory droplets, and if these are caught in a face covering, they are not in the air to infect someone else."

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

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