All of Chattanooga's community centers will close at the conclusion of summer camp on Friday due to a spike in new COVID-19 cases, which have already forced four centers to close, according to a news release from the city.
While community centers normally shut down for a week of deep cleaning after summer camp, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced via news release Tuesday that they will "remain closed indefinitely due to spiking COVID-19 infections among unvaccinated Chattanoogans."
New COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County on Tuesday returned to levels not seen since the tail end of the deadly winter surge in February, when the vaccination campaign was still in its early stages.
The Hamilton County Health Department reported 122 new cases on Tuesday, which amounts to a seven-day moving average of 81 new cases. Test positivity rate has also surged to 13.5% in the past week, indicating a high level of community spread and not enough testing to properly track the virus.
As of Tuesday, there were 796 active cases and 83 coronavirus-related hospitalizations in the county, including 34 Hamilton County residents, 19 patients in intensive care and nine patients with probable infection that had not yet been confirmed.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county are now nearly five times greater than on July 1, when 17 confirmed and suspected patients were in local hospitals.
Three new COVID-19 deaths were also reported Tuesday. The county had gone since April 16 without reporting three deaths in a single day.
"It is for this reason that I am in the unfortunate position of having to order all of our community centers to remain closed following summer camp. They will remain so until our community vaccination rate reaches 70%, or until this current outbreak reverses trend and begins to decline," Kelly said via news release.
Mary Lambert, director of the city's office of community health, said in the release that "new variants of the COVID-19 virus are making younger people sicker, up to and including serious critical illness, long-term health problems and death, as well as spreading more quickly than before.
"We have now closed four community centers due to outbreaks of this virus, and the only way to prevent the situation from growing worse is to get vaccinated and protect yourself. Please don't gamble with your health," Lambert said.
Chattanooga's worsening COVID-19 outbreak mirrors a sobering national picture in which the pandemic has come roaring back, and in some areas surpassed, winter's deadly peak in many cities — particularly those where vaccination rates remain low. Officials said the surge is fueled by the more contagious delta variant and a return to more in-person activities without protective measures.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday rolled back its new, less-restrictive face-covering guidance in response to the resurgence.
The nation's leading public health agency in May revised its guidelines to allow unvaccinated individuals to go maskless indoors but is now recommending that everyone wear face masks — regardless of whether they've been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — in areas with high rates of transmission.
The CDC also changed its recommendations to include universal masking of teachers, staff and students in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
Kelly's Tuesday announcement followed the closures of the Carver, East Chattanooga, Washington Hills and Frances B. Wyatt community centers over a four-day period, all of which were forced to close due to confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the news release.
The release states that "camps will continue through Friday at community centers that remain open. Parks, pools and outdoor spaces will remain open for the present, though they could be subject to closure if the current outbreak continues to worsen."
The community centers will open only for scheduled vaccination events.
"The resurgence of COVID in our community is affecting young and old, rich and poor, and people of every color. It does not discriminate, except in one respect — this is an outbreak among the unvaccinated," Kelly said in the release, citing vaccination as the best way to curb the pandemic and avoid serious illness.
Although a small number of fully vaccinated people still become infected by COVID-19, their symptoms are typically much milder and rarely result in hospitalization or death.
Residents can find a convenient location to get vaccinated by visiting vaccines.gov.
There are many local opportunities to get vaccinated, including free, walk-in COVID-19 vaccines at the Downtown Library Auditorium every Monday from 3-5:30 p.m. through Aug. 30 in addition to rotating opportunities at the city's community centers.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.