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In the middle of one of the worst surges of COVID-19 yet in Hamilton County, local leaders are calling on the community to remain vigilant about the virus and adjust plans for the upcoming Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays accordingly.

Becky Barnes, administrator with the Hamilton County Health Department, said people need to shift to outdoor events, wear masks and limit contact with others. Those most at risk, including the elderly and people with underlying conditions, should consider attending holidays virtually this year, she said.

"This is a hard reality, but the virus is circulating at too high numbers in our community for us to have our usual Thanksgiving celebrations," Barnes said. "We urge everyone to plan for much smaller gatherings."

The COVID-19 pandemic hit rural areas particularly hard in the past two months, while areas like Chattanooga saw a flattening of new cases.

But in the past three weeks, local cases and hospitalizations have surged to match levels seen during the worst weeks of the virus in July and the deadliest month so far in August.

(READ MORE: Grundy County faces pandemic spike as COVID-19 spreads in Tennessee's rural areas)

On Wednesday, the health department reported 110 new cases with 1,128 active cases in the community. The announcement marked the 8th day in a row of 100 or more new cases. In the past week, the county is averaging 116 new cases a day. The health department also reported 91 people hospitalized with the virus, with 32 of those hospitalizations being Hamilton County residents.

"The only way to stop this upward trend is for everyone in our community to do their part to slow the spread of the virus," Barnes said. "So I believe that we are at a critical juncture. We must pivot to safer practices in our community."

Local contact tracing reveals that people who are infected are having more contact with people, which puts more people at risk, Barnes said. Nationwide, cases are surging as temperatures drop, pushing people indoors, as well as increasing coronavirus fatigue, which can cause people to skirt precautions in hopes of having some semblance of normality.

"We are seeing cases broadly across our community," Barnes said. "I would say the largest drivers of our increase are lack of appropriate mask-wearing, lack of social distancing, small gatherings without precautions, family spread, continuing to leave home while ill or while awaiting a test result, pandemic fatigue, cooler weather, shorter days and more time spent indoors."

In the past week, the Chattanooga metro area and Hamilton County moved into the "red zone" for the virus because of the increase in cases, according to an Oct. 25 report from the White House COVID-19 Task Force.

Nearly three-quarters of counties in Tennessee reported high levels of community transmission, and the state averaged 264 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, nearly double the national average of 133 per 100,000 at the time, according to the White House report.

"All indicators of community spread are increasing, including percent of nursing homes with positive staff members and residents, and community spread is increasing hospital admissions, leading to potential resource constraints," the report reads.

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

Mitigation efforts outlined in the report include mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and avoiding crowds in public and, specifically, social gatherings in private.

At the end of September, Gov. Bill Lee lifted restrictions on businesses and large gatherings for 89 of Tennessee's 95 counties. Hamilton County, given the freedom to keep such restrictions in place, followed suit under County Mayor Jim Coppinger's guidance. However, the mayor did extend the countywide mask mandate through Nov. 22.

A study released Tuesday from Vanderbilt University showed the hardest-hit areas of Tennessee continue to be those without public face mask requirements.

Coppinger urged continued vigilance in taking COVID-19 precautions, even around family.

"We're seeing an uptick," he said during a Wednesday news conference. "We're seeing it throughout the county. We're seeing it throughout the state. And it's just to alert everyone we can coexist with this virus but only if we're willing to take the steps that's necessary."

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

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