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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / RN Lauren Dean fills syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine inside of the pharmacy at the Hamilton County Health Department's new COVID Vaccination POD at the CARTA Bus Terminal on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

While new COVID-19 cases fell throughout the Chattanooga region in February, the long-lasting effects of the winter surge continued with 366 people dying from the virus last month.

The February total was the third deadliest month for a 21-county region of Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama. The first and second deadliest months were January and December, respectively.

The region experienced a spike in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday last year, with nearly every county in the area reporting record numbers of new cases. On Jan. 8, Hamilton County averaged 515 new cases a day over a seven-day period, a record high. New case totals have fallen since then in the county and around the area. As of Monday, the county averaged 77 new cases a day in the past week, along with 57 people hospitalized with the virus, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Deaths from the virus often follow several weeks after a spike in hospitalizations, which come several weeks after spikes in new cases. Hospitalization totals have fallen in recent weeks following the drop in new cases, but Hamilton County reported 100 COVID-19 deaths in February, the second-highest monthly total to date. The deadliest month was December, when 118 people died from the virus.

Many of the local case trends mirror national ones. The United States is averaging about 68,000 cases a day over the past week, according to COVID-19 tracking from The New York Times. Though that figure represents a 26% decrease from where average new cases stood two weeks ago, the nation's progress in reducing new cases since the winter peak seems to have slowed.

Public health experts say they remain cautiously optimistic but fear that cases could rebound if mitigation practices are relaxed too soon.

Hamilton County continues to test fewer people than at any point in the past seven months, when such data became available. The county is averaging fewer than 700 new tests a day in the past week. On Monday, the Hamilton County Health Department announced its testing facility at the Alstom site would reduce to five days a week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday — from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Around 11.5% of new tests are coming back positive in the county, a rate higher than the 5% threshold advised by health experts that would signify community control of the virus.

Due to its high test positivity rate and sustained average of 23 daily cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks, The New York Times rates Hamilton County as "an extremely high risk level" for COVID-19 transmission.

"The risk in Hamilton County will decrease to very high risk if the test positivity rate drops below 10% or the daily case rate drops to less than 11 cases per 100,000 people," according to the Times.

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

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

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