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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County residents wait in line on Amnicola Parkway to get the Pfizer Coronavirus vaccine at the Tennessee River Park on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thursday was the first day Hamilton County allowed for residents 75 and older to get vaccinated, which resulted wait hours long wait times.

December was the deadliest month for COVID-19 in Hamilton County and the surrounding region, more than doubling previous highs as the pandemic hit Tennessee especially hard.

At least 115 people died of COVID-19 in Hamilton County in December, with 365 people dying from the virus in a 21-county region surrounding Chattanooga. Both totals passed the previous records of 44 deaths in Hamilton County and 189 in the region, both recorded in November.

According to data from the Hamilton County Health Department, 154 of the 273 total deaths locally have been men, with 172 deaths among white residents and 81 among Black residents. The surge of cases among Hispanic residents, which led to major disparities in cases and deaths in May, has largely slowed. There were four reported COVID-19 deaths of Hispanic residents in the county in December.

Chattanooga, and the rest of the United States, is in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Multiple records of key metrics were repeatedly broken this month as new cases, active cases and hospitalizations spiked. In early December, the local health department suspended parts of its contact tracing efforts because of the surge.

For comparison, the highest seven-day average of new cases during Hamilton County's first spike in early June was an average of 65 new cases a day. Daily hospitalization totals at the time were in the low 30s. In late July, during the second spike, the highest seven-day average for new cases was 122 new cases a day with daily hospitalization totals in the mid-80s. On the final day of December, Hamilton County had 242 hospitalizations, 3,903 active cases and was averaging 402 new cases a day for the past seven days. All of these figures are records.

Tennessee was one of the worst states for COVID-19 in the nation in December, with several cities in Southeast Tennessee making a national list of emerging hotspots. The latest report from the White House COVID-19 Task Force, dated Dec. 27, listed Tennessee as the second-highest state in the country for new coronavirus cases per capita — Tennessee reported 627 new cases per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 391 cases per 100,000 people. The state is number four in the country for highest test positivity rate, according to the report.

The White House report noted Tennessee and West Virginia, along with states on the East Coast, West Coast and Sunbelt, are experiencing "full winter surge." The report states anyone aged 65 or older or people with underlying health conditions should not enter any indoor space where masks are not being worn because of the high transmission rate. "No unmasked public gatherings are safe and no indoor private gatherings are safe without all members fully masked, unless all members are actively taking the same precautions and regularly test negative," the report reads.

Gov. Bill Lee has faced criticism for continuing his refusal to implement a statewide mask mandate, instead leaving the decision up to local county mayors. While the governor has strongly encouraged masks, he has said requiring them would be too controversial in the state. Some medical experts argued the patchwork nature of COVID-19 regulations in the Southeast led to worse outcomes than would have happened through a more uniform approach.

The arrival of the coronavirus vaccine in December offers some hope, as more than 3,000 Hamilton County residents had been vaccinated with the first shot as of Wednesday. High demand caused the county health department to close the distribution center Thursday until more doses are available. The distribution site, located along the riverwalk at 4301 Amnicola Highway, is expected to reopen on Tuesday, Jan. 5, at 9 a.m.

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

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