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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Rae Young Bond, CEO of the Medical Society of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, speaks during a news conference at the McDaniel Building about the coronavirus on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left, and Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, right, stood behind Bond.

After their final official meeting, members of the COVID-19 Task Force urged Hamilton County residents to get vaccinated and to continue following mitigation measures to stop the spread of the virus, as the countywide mask mandate is scheduled to expire in four weeks.

Rae Bond, chair of the task force, said the group was supportive of the mandate and encouraged county Mayor Jim Coppinger to continue it, but did not have any specific conversations about the duration. For the past year, the task force advised local leaders but did have the power to make policy.

As a private citizen, Bond said she will continue to wear a mask and go to businesses that require them.

"I think that's the safest course forward," Bond said. "The community response to the pandemic has really been a whole series of individual decisions that we have to make — are we going to keep our distance, are we going to wear masks, are we going to wash our hands? I think that's something that every individual location is going to need to decide for themselves. But, personally, I think it's a good idea for people to continue to be as prudent as possible."

Tuesday was the final meeting for the task force. The group announced last week it would end its official work to provide an opening for the new Chattanooga city mayor to set the direction for pandemic response.

The final meeting comes the day after Coppinger announced he would extend the countywide mask mandate until April 28 but lift the requirement after that.

Coppinger said extending the mandate for another month will give residents more time to receive their vaccine. On Friday, the Hamilton County Health Department announced all residents ages 16 and older are eligible to receive a vaccine, which made all adults in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia eligible for shots.

Public health officials, including Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes, said residents should continue wearing masks and following other public health guidelines until more people can be vaccinated. Coppinger, who has received his first dose of vaccine, said he would be "very cautious about walking into a group of people not wearing masks."

Bond said increasing vaccine availability and mobilization efforts have increased the county's vaccination rates. Nearly 15% of county residents have been fully vaccinated, according to the most recent data provided by the Hamilton County Health Department.

"It is absolutely the best thing we can do as a community," Bond said. "We need to overcome hesitancy to become vaccinated. And there are a lot of workgroups that are working on messaging. I encourage everybody to get the shot and protect yourself and protect those you love."

Dr. Sanford Sharp, medical director of laboratories at CHI Memorial Hospital, said the pandemic has forced local health leaders to be more collaborative. He said the county mayor did the right thing in keeping the mask mandate for the past nine months.

"I thought he showed a lot of courage in sticking with the mask mandate because he was, I believe, he was getting a lot of pushback from his constituents," Sharp said. "But he stayed the course. He was getting feedback, within the task force, in support of the mask mandate. And he was listening, for sure."

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

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