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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / RaeKenya Walker gives out backpacks and other supplies inside the pavilion. Hamilton County Schools kicked off the 2020-2021 school year, on Saturday August 8, 2020, with the district’s third annual Back to School Bash at the First Horizon Pavilion. This year’s event was a safe, no-contact drive-thru for families to receive a free backpack with school supplies. The 2020 event is made possible through the generous partnership of the Nehemiah Project, BlueCare Tennessee, State Farm, and United Way.

Dr. Mark Anderson, an infectious disease specialist at CHI Memorial, has spent his entire career preparing for — and worrying about — when a pandemic might strike.

"It's just terrifying, absolutely terrifying," Anderson told the Times Free Press in 2018 — 100 years since the Spanish flu, the most infamous pandemic of the last century.

"Can that happen again? I certainly would not say anything is impossible," he said at the time.

Sunday marks six months since the coronavirus pandemic reached Hamilton County. In the 26 weeks that followed, thousands of people lost their jobs, at least 84 people have died and life in Chattanooga has changed dramatically.

As the virus continues to impact all parts of life, the Times Free Press compiled photographs and revisited some of the biggest stories throughout the past six months. 

March: The virus is among us

Tennessee reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 4. Just over a week later, March 13, county and city leaders announced the first confirmed case in Hamilton County. The announcement — the same day President Donald Trump declared a national emergency — followed days of rumors circulating of loved ones possibly infected with symptoms mirroring COVID-19.

Testing supplies were so scarce that only the sickest patients, those in hospitals and people who met strict travel or exposure criteria, could get tested — fueling fears that the coronavirus was already spreading in the county.

Standing at the podium that Friday afternoon, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told residents to stay calm as the county initiated its mitigation plans.

Hamilton County Schools announced it would be closed until at least the end of April. The City Council suspended its in-person meetings, and local restaurants began to shut their doors. City and county officials appeared together at media briefings to show unity against COVID-19, which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.

"None of us really know how long this is going to take, how long we are going to be in this state of emergency that we're in," Coppinger said at the time.

April: Livelihoods wiped away in seconds

Terry Knowles dialed his father. No answer. The weather report playing on the screen in front of him was telling people in East Brainerd to take cover immediately.

Knowles, battalion chief for District 1 of the Chattanooga Fire Department, had worked bad storms before, but this one felt different, he said.

On the third try, his father picked up. Before that moment, Knowles said he had never heard fear in his father's voice.

"I told him, 'Get mom. Get downstairs,'" Knowles said. "And he said, 'Son, the house has been blown apart.'"

The calls for help began pouring in as Knowles was on the road to East Brainerd. He was on a well-known route to the Drake Forest area, toward the house he grew up in and his parents have owned for more than 40 years.

The battalion chief got as far as the Ashwood subdivision on Shallowford Road that night of April 12 before the roads were blocked by fallen trees and downed power poles. The cell phone service was spotty in the area, but he got connected with his father on the phone again. The older Knowles told his son to help others.

"I knew he was OK," Knowles said. "But you still don't know until you see them. I wanted to lay my eyes on them and make sure."

Rescue crews began going house to house in the area. Knowles knew the streets and the families there, though many once-familiar places were unrecognizable, with homes flattened, trees gone and road signs blown away by the EF3 tornado that hit Chattanooga.

"Just the devastation, it was unreal," he said. "Especially right there, going into a neighborhood you grew up in, three-quarters of it is gone. You just knew how very lucky we were that we didn't lose more lives than what we did."

In total, the storm system that produced seven tornadoes in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia killed 11 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Sometime in the night, an off-duty lieutenant in the fire department found Knowles' parents and brought them to the battalion chief. The family embraced.

"I'll never forget that night," Knowles said.

As the storm came to an end and cleanup efforts began, the impact was immediate and obvious. There were trees to clear. Rubble to clean up. Insurance claims to make.

For a moment, the pandemic simmered in the background for many in Chattanooga, but the virus was quickly spreading in some of the most at-risk communities.

May: Divisions and disparities emerge

Stay-at-home orders implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 kept most Hamilton County residents sheltered in place throughout April.

The orders worked to "flatten the curve" so hospitals could avoid a patient surge. However, some experts feared the social, economic and other health-related damage from the shutdown would last for years. State officials projected a $5 billion loss in gross domestic product for Tennessee in 2020. Unemployment jumped to a record high across Tennessee and Georgia in April.

Gov. Bill Lee and Coppinger allowed their executive orders to expire in early May, saying they now had tools in place to combat the virus' spread thanks to free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing that did not require an appointment or doctor's referral.

Hospitals and businesses resumed operations. Many stir-crazy residents returned to in-person activities and pre-pandemic movement patterns.

But others, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, felt it was too soon to relax strict social distancing rules.

While many spent April working from home, another group of "essential workers" — people with jobs that went on despite the shutdown — never had that luxury. Those workers, many of whom expressed safety concerns in April, realized their fears as outbreaks emerged at Chattanooga's poultry processing plants, construction sites, daycare centers, and among manufacturing, food and landscaping industries.

During the first week of May, the county averaged around four new cases a day. By the end of the month, the county averaged 63 cases a day, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

With cases spiking, officials attributed the increase to workplace clusters and more testing, not community spread due to businesses reopening.

The rising numbers also revealed that COVID-19 was hitting Hamilton County's at-risk neighborhoods much harder than others.

The 37407 ZIP code, containing the Clifton Hills and East Lake neighborhoods, represents less than 3% of Hamilton County's population, but by mid-May became home to around one in six of the county's known COVID-19 cases. The area is also more racially diverse than the rest of the county, with nearly 40% of residents being Black or African American and more than 25% Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

A disparity among Latino residents climbed steadily throughout the month. By the start of June, Hispanic residents — who make up 6% of Hamilton County's population — were 67% of the county's confirmed cases.

As efforts to bring testing to underserved communities continued into June, COVID-19 cases among Black residents also began growing at a faster rate than white residents. African American community leaders knew the virus had been disproportionately impacting Black people, but said it wasn't until community testing became accessible that many of those cases were found.

The disparities revealed in May have held throughout the pandemic.

June: Take to the streets

By the end of May and early June, evenings stretched into the following mornings as crowds in the hudreds, most wearing masks, gathered in Miller Park or Coolidge Park and marched across the city.

Cameron "C-Grimey" Williams remembers being shocked those first nights at the size of the turnout.

"My thoughts were this is beautiful," Williams said. "Finally, there's people in the streets demanding change, viewing the disparities to Black and brown and poor folk, and people are acknowledging the brutality and the murder and the systematic racism that affects Blacks and other marginalized groups face every day."

But Williams was haunted by another feeling.

"I don't want none of these police to kill nobody, beat nobody or jail nobody during these protests," he said.

The groups were gathering in Chattanooga, like in cities across the country, in the final days of May to demand an end to police brutality after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minnesota police officer. People were angry. People wanted change.

Williams, who has spent years in Chattanooga bringing the arts to area youth and helping the previously incarcerated re-enter society, wanted to help guide that energy and keep people safe. With the help of local activist Marie Mott, Williams co-founded I Can't Breathe CHA to help organize and coordinate the effort.

Protests in Chattanooga did not turn violent, though there were arrests, some property damage and one night tear gas was used on protesters to force them away from the courthouse.

The organization mobilized hundreds of people to call in to City Council meetings to demand changes to the city budget. They shared articles and other information on social media. They organized volunteers for community gardens.

The group's main demand — divestment of police resources and investment in Black communities — was not passed by the City Council. Yet, Williams said there were major gains in getting the police to implement written policies requiring officers to provide a warning before using deadly force and having the duty to intervene when aware of police wrongdoing.

People need to realize that equity for Black people means a better country for everyone, Williams said. The ongoing pandemic primed people to notice inequalities in the existing landscape of America, he said.

"I say COVID was like a gift and a curse when it comes to the hyperfocus that it put on some of the inequities and the disparities in our country," he said.

July: Some make face masks mandatory

The coronavirus was widespread in July, affecting all ZIP codes, ages and demographics.

The Hamilton County mayor did what many had called for earlier, implementing a public mask mandate on July 10. It would take weeks to see the effects, and the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations — a prime indicator of the outbreak's severity — swelled until reaching its peak on July 21.

But the impact of COVID-19 on Hamilton County's hospitals, which serve much of the region, was only partly due to transmission within the county's borders.

Counties across the region — including Bradley and Polk in Tennessee, and Murray and Whitfield in Georgia — that were largely spared from the virus in the early days of the pandemic were now experiencing surges of their own.

At the peak, 121 confirmed or probable coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Hamilton County. Of those patients, 77 were residents of outlying counties, according to health department data.

Whitfield County reported its first coronavirus case on March 18. It took nearly three months for the county to reach 500 cases on June 8. Only 21 days later, cases doubled and the county was put on Georgia's watch list as a coronavirus hotspot.

On July 2, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp made one of a handful of stops across the state in Dalton to plead with citizens to wear a mask and continue to practice social distancing ahead of the Fourth of July weekend. Public health officials urged Kemp to issue a statewide mask mandate. The Republican governor refused, saying he preferred to leave his trust in the hands of Georgians to make the right decision.

"We don't need a mandate to do the right thing," Kemp told a large crowd at Hamilton Health Care Center in Dalton. "Let's just be smart and reasonable. There is, however, no doubt that COVID-19 continues to spread in our state and across the country."

Dr. Zachary Taylor, director of the North Georgia Health District, said the case surge was due to people being more comfortable out in public, gathering in large groups and even gathering indoors to try to stay away from the summer heat.

By July 21, 108 people had been hospitalized in Whitfield County, while 2,347 had been infected with the virus and 23 people had died.

Despite the grim statistics, Hamilton County remains the only county in the Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia region with a public mask mandate. Alabama's governor implemented a statewide mask mandate in July.

August: Death tolls soar, schools reopen doors

Taylor mentioned when cases were rising, the community should expect deaths and hospitalizations could soon follow a surge in confirmed cases.

His worst fears came true between Aug. 10 and Aug. 24 when 17 people died of the coronavirus in Whitfield County.

There was a four-day period starting Aug. 15 during which two deaths were reported every day and as of Friday afternoon, 57 people had died there due to the virus.

Meanwhile in Tennessee, coronavirus hospitalizations were stable or declining in areas such as Hamilton County — where face masks were mandated in public — and growing in areas without such requirements, according to a report from Vanderbilt University. Since July 1, hospitals that primarily treated patients from areas without mask requirements on average saw a more than 200% increase in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

August proved to be the deadliest month for the coronavirus thus far in Hamilton County.

As focus turned to returning to school, so did the realization that new COVID-19 cases were surging among young people.

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What you need to know

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On the first day of July, officials with Georgia's Chattooga County Schools announced that students and teachers would be in class starting on July 30, becoming one of the first districts in the nation to reopen. Many in Northwest Georgia followed closely to see if there were any outbreaks or closures at schools, and many followed Chattooga's playbook on how to safely open schools with new health and safety procedures in place.

Student pickup, drop-off, lunches and recess were altered to make sure social distancing a priority. Water fountains were replaced with bottle refill stations, recess was limited to outdoor play, playground equipment was off limits and hand sanitation stations were placed around each building.

People with appointments were required to wear face masks and had their temperatures checked.

Masks for students and teachers would not be required but recommended where social distancing is more difficult. Some school districts in the area like Dade and Walker counties took similar approaches.

In Whitfield County and Dalton Public Schools, a mask requirement was implemented where the virus was worse.

Teachers in Walker County tried to advocate for a mask mandate and other safety precautions, to no avail.

Mary Goss, a teacher at Chattanooga Valley Middle School in Walker County, told the school board her 7-year-old daughter Mercedes cried the night the school district announced it would reopen with a traditional five-day-a-week plan.

Mercedes' dad has Type 2 diabetes and is one of millions of people who are considered high risk of dying from the coronavirus.

"I'm concerned that my daughter, who is extremely sensitive, will think it's her fault if he were to die," Goss told the school board in an impassioned speech. "I know she's not the only student who feels this way, and I know I'm not the only teacher who feels this way."

The day before school started in August, 2019 Rossville Middle School Teacher of the Year Hailey Reynolds resigned because she didn't feel like the district's reopening plan did enough to protect students and staff.

Another former teacher of the year — Ashlee Hubbard-Heitz at Ridgeland High School — left Walker County Schools for another school district.

LaFayette High School history teacher Donna Speegle said teachers were considered in the spring to be heroes for adapting to a world that seemed to be changing every day.

"Now I feel like a zero, like my life is expendable," she said. " I want to be back in the classroom with the students I love, but it isn't safe. I am not a crybaby. I am not lazy. What I am is angry."

Several school districts in Northwest Georgia have dealt with COVID-19 cases with students and staff members, but all have avoided major outbreaks.

In Hamilton County, which resumed in-person learning on Aug. 12, officials said that social gatherings such as parties and carpooling — not classroom interaction — were driving COVID-19 case surges in young people.

September: Looking forward

COVID-19 is not the flu. It's less understood, more deadly and requires different public health and medical strategies to combat, because there's no vaccine or reliable antiviral treatment.

Infectious disease expert Anderson said that although the health care community knew the possibility of a pandemic, this disease is unlike anything they've seen before.

"Some of the things that have happened, we thought about before and had planned for within our field and the community here, but there are just so many things you can't anticipate," Anderson said. "I would hope that we're going to learn from this, that we need to have a better strategy in the future for national oversight and planning."

Clinicians have learned a lot about treating coronavirus, but there are still many unknowns. They're bracing for what will happen when flu season arrives this fall while also combatting what many have dubbed "COVID fatigue."

"Not only are we looking at two illnesses being present at the same time, we have to look at the resources that are available," Dr. Andrea Willis, chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said during a webcast that aired Wednesday.

"It's about us doing everything we can do to protect each other."

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

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

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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