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Government, Schools and Institutions Race to Deal with COVID-19, Educate Public

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This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. EDT.

The Tennessee Department of Public Health says Knox County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19.  

The patient contracted the virus on overseas travel, and self-isolated when they returned to Tennessee, said Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan. The case has not been serious enough to require hospitalization, and is considered isolated.

Ealrier in the day, Buchanan briefed reporters and fielded questions about the new coronavirus and public concern about the illness.

"Our hospitals all have a plan," she said. "They are prepared for any possible increase in patients.”

She emphasized protecting the most vulnerable populations in the community: people with chronic health problems and the elderly. Visitation to hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities should be limited, Buchanan said.

"It's hard, because people want to see their relatives when they're sick," Buchanan said. "But you can always send a card, call them or text them. That protects the people that are most vulnerable."

There are two ways to get tested, Buchanan said: through the state Department of Health, and through private labs. The state had the materials to test 500 patients as of Thursday. The stock of privately-held testing materials was unknown. Testing through the state goes to a lab in Nashville, and takes about 24 to 48 hours to get a result.

While many healthy Tennesseans may want to get tested as a precautionary measure, Buchanan said the people who actually need testing are those most likely to have a risk of coronavirus: people who have traveled recently to known coronavirus hotspots, or people who have been in contact with said travelers. And most importantly, people who report symptoms known to be associated with COVID-19.

“If you’re not sick, you don’t need to be tested for coronavirus,” Buchanan said. “Everybody seems to wants to seem to want to change their behavior and go get seen, or get a test. People should follow what they would normally follow. If you’re sick enough to go see your doctor, call your doctor and go see your doctor. If it’s something that you would normally just stay home and weather it out, weather it out. Don’t change those behaviors.”

Testing also doesn’t offer a cure. It simply lets medical professionals and patients know the illness is present. For many people, that will mean staying home, avoiding crowds, and treating themselves with over-the-counter cold and flu medications. The most effective medicines are those that contain a fever reducer, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with COVID-19 remain home until their body temperature stays below 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 24 hours without the aid of a fever-reducing drug, and the patient exhibits no other symptoms of COVID-19 for more than 24 hours without the aid of medications.

In Nashville, Gov. Bill Lee declared a state of emergency, which frees up resources and funding to help the state deal with COVID-19. Lee also encouraged Tennesseans to avoid non-essential visits to nursing homes and hospitals.

"We know this is serious. We also know this is especially serious for neighbors who are elderly. This is why we should all take this seriously even if you are not in the vulnerable population," Gov. Lee said.

Late Thursday morning, the Southeastern Conference cancelled all regular-season and tournament sporting events until at least March 30. That put an effective freeze on the University of Tennessee’s spring sports, including baseball, softball and basketball.

“From an institutional standpoint, we'll continue to rely on the advice and expertise of public health authorities and the university's Office of Emergency Management as we approach the coming days and weeks with the health of our student-athletes, staff and campus community at the forefront of our decision making,” UT Athletic Director Phil Fulmer said in a statement.

The city of Knoxville cancelled the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, and the University of Tennessee dropped plans for local outreach events and mini-conferences. UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman went ahead with her planned “office hours” event at the Student Union Thursday afternoon. The McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture announced on Twitter it would close to the public from March 16 to April 3.