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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, speaks during a press conference Thursday about the coronavirus as Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stands behind her.

For answers to frequently asked questions about the coronavirus, click here

 

When all the pandemic confusion subsides, we hope the news is better than we expect, and the mood here and across the world can lighten.

Without question, this week has been grim. Hamilton County confirmed its first COVID-19 case in the Chattanooga area. Virus numbers statewide rose steadily. Testing questions festered. Stocks made record tumbles. Store shelves emptied. Schools and businesses closed. The horrifying reality of a global pandemic began to set in, and on Friday President Donald Trump declared America in a state of national emergency.

Each time the president has spoken, the markets ricocheted further, and the cacophony of disconnect about repeatedly promised tests became a discordant clamor. Friday was the exception, with stocks rebounding slightly as media outlets reported the expected declaration and news that private companies were stepping in to help with testing efforts.

We hope it is not too little, too late.

Seven weeks have passed since the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was announced. The federal government has failed to account for what could be thousands of additional infections — indeed, already by early Friday afternoon there were more than 1,200 — because of ongoing problems with testing.

Trump's action came one day after a record drop on Wall Street and a congressional briefing from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health. Fauci, who has served as scientific adviser for every president since Ronald Reagan, just hours before told Congress, "The system is not really geared to what we need right now. That is a failing. It is a failing, let's admit it."

We heard it locally — clearly — for the first time Thursday. In a live-streamed news conference, Hamilton County officials verified that they knew of only one coronavirus test conducted on a local individual, and that result was negative. We already could see around us plenty of anecdotal evidence of local residents who have been very sick with symptoms mimicking coronavirus, yet they have been frustrated that they could not get tested.

"I can't really breathe or function and no one will help me," said Sarah Thompson, a Harrison resident who — despite a possible exposure — has been refused a coronavirus test. She told The Times Free Press Thursday that she has been sick for two weeks and is getting worse despite flu tests and treatment.

"It feels like a boa constrictor literally wrapped around my chest and nobody at any of the doctors or the county will test me," said Thompson, a 24-year-old mother who works as a dog walker for clients that include one who recently traveled to Italy. "Look, I went to the [Erlanger emergency room] on Gunbarrel Road last week, and today I called the health department and about two dozen doctors, but most won't let me in and say they aren't testing. And those who are, say they probably wouldn't test me because I'm not their patient and I don't fit the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] description."

Friday, unfortunately, we learned of a confirmed test on different patient — assuring us that COVID-19 is in our community. Father Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, is the first confirmed case. Two other people are being "monitored."

Another area of confusion is about schools. But oddly, that confusion apparently applies more to teachers than to students and parents. Just hours after Hamilton County Schools officials announced that schools would be closed until March 30, many teachers were speaking out against the plan.

Actually a more apt description would be that many teachers were whining about the plan — especially the part of it that applies to changing the dates of spring break "at this late date."

The overriding concern wasn't illness or learning. It was vacation plans.

The school administration wants to move spring break from the week of April 4 to the week of March 23 — one of the two weeks when school is now suspended for coronavirus safety. Moving the week would save emergency and weather days on the school calendar, according to officials. And it would give school officials and teachers some needed work time to develop remote learning plans.

The Hamilton County Education Association, the local teachers union, circulated a survey to its members Thursday night which found that more than 60% of respondents say they have already paid for spring break plans and cannot get a refund.

We're wondering if they have bothered to check and see if their vacation destinations — like Disney World, for instance — would even be open. One teacher email to a board member mentioned a planned trip to Montego Bay and San Francisco. Hello? San Francisco is so beset with illness that the California governor has just ordered the cancellations of all gatherings of 250 or more people anywhere in the state.

Nonetheless, dozens of teachers are contacting their school board member and asking them to vote against the recommendation.

This is a time of testing — personal, emotional and physical testing — for all of us.

Let's clear our minds this weekend and prepare to face a new day, a new week. Hopefully we can make it a better one.

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