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As Testing Capacity Grows, Medical Facilities Work to Close Supply Gaps

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

The message from the Knox County Health Department was consistent Thursday: People who have symptoms of COVID-19 should get tested for the illness, and people who feel fine should not strain the region’s growing but still limited testing capacity.

“There’s a ton of questions about testing,” Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan said, noting the subject is frequently mentioned by people calling the health department, and communicating on social media.

Testing for COVID-19 is slowly becoming more available from medical providers, and so-called “drive-through” testing is debuting in Blount, Union and Claiborne counties, as well as other sites across the state. The Tennessee Department of Health said most locations first conduct a phone assessment to determine whether more follow-up or a COVID-19 test is necessary.

Buchanan said Knox County is looking at the possibility of creating a similar assessment or testing site. The discussions are in very early stages.

As of midday Thursday, Knox County still had one confirmed local case of COVID-19 (a second reported case counted a person who was tested in another state and lives in another country, but has a Knoxville address on file).

Asked if more widespread testing of the general public would be ideal, Buchanan said, “It would be ideal to test the folks that need to be tested. We go back to the science of medicine and epidemiology: You want to test the people that have the risk for the disease. You’re going to get better results and better information.”

Some commentators have wondered why only tests that confirm COVID-19, and not the total number of tests conducted, have been disclosed.

“Knowing the positive [results], that’s the information that we need to our job,” Buchanan said. “We don’t need the information on negative tests to be able to protect the public.”

Person-to-person transmission has still not been reported in the Knoxville metro area. Buchanan reiterated that it’s only a matter of time before that community spread is seen locally. It’s already in progress in the Nashville metro area, where nearly 90 cases have been confirmed.

East Tennessee hospitals are looking to maximize their “surge capacity” in the event of many cases that require hospitalization. Buchanan said she meets with Knoxville-area hospital executives nearly daily as planning continues. Like many medical facilities around the country, hospitals here are short of personal protective equipment, such as facial masks, and specialized medical equipment, such as ventilators. More supplies should be on the way soon, but Buchanan could not say when.