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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A worker takes a sample at the Alstom COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Chattanooga leaders are worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic but most feel confident about regional preparedness for the looming flu season, according to the latest Times Free Press Power Poll — which surveyed 134 individuals in Chattanooga and Hamilton County who make or influence policy decisions at the local, state and federal levels.

The poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, drew responses from 83 individuals, for a 62% response rate. Topics focused on local health care issues such as COVID-19 and whether it's worth exploring different ownership models for Erlanger Health System.

Hamilton County and hospital officials as well as the legislative delegation have repeatedly said "Erlanger is not for sale" since a Pennsylvania-based private equity firm offered $475 million to buy the public hospital system last month. However, nearly half (49%) of Power Poll respondents said they believe it's worthwhile to explore different ownership models for Erlanger, which like many hospitals was dealt a devastating financial blow as a result of the pandemic.

When asked about flu season readiness, 78% of respondents said they were either somewhat confident (60%) or very confident (18%) that local government and health providers are prepared for what some are calling a "twindemic." About 22% of respondents said they were not confident in the area's ability to weather COVID-19 on top of the flu.

Leaders appear much more concerned about the damage COVID-19 has had on local businesses and the economy.

Only three respondents (4%) said they're "not worried at all" about the long-term impact of the coronavirus from an economic standpoint, whereas 20% said they were "very worried," 19% said they were "not too worried" and the majority — 57% — said they were "worried."

Most respondents (69%) believe it will take two years or more for the region to recover fully from the economic damage brought on by the coronavirus, including 22% who believe it will take three or more years. A quarter of respondents believe it will take a year to recover, and 6% think it will take less than a year.

Charles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that "from a long-term perspective, we as a community must focus on future pipelines of talent able to thrive in more resilient, high-growth industries like technology."

"There have been significant economic gains over the last few months and we are optimistic about continued improvement. However, thousands of families across our region have been impacted and we are in a state of economic fragility," Wood said. "It is paramount that our community focus on economic development and workforce training to provide reskilling opportunities for those who have been impacted."

Christy Gillenwater, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, thanked residents for "masking up and supporting area businesses" in her response to the Power Poll.

"These are challenging times, particularly for local businesses, and you can make a difference. Wearing a mask also enables our kids to attend school, and it helps protect our fellow neighbors," Gillenwater wrote.

The Power Poll is composed of elected officials and leaders from business, civic and nonprofit organizations, media and education. While the survey is not a scientific poll, results offer insights into the opinions and beliefs of key decision-makers in the area.

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

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