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Knox County Sees Continued “Statistically Significant” Rise in COVID Cases

video still/Knox County Health Department

Fourteen new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Knox County Wednesday, continuing a trend first noted over the Memorial Day weekend. Some of the cases are in two small clusters (localized concentrations of cases), including one at a West Knoxville grocery store.

While the double-digit rise is considered statistically significant, it is also not unexpected. Knox County’s health department predicted cases would increase as business traffic and social activities ramp up.

“Our case counts have been so low, it doesn’t take that much to be statistically significant,” KCHD director Martha Buchanan said at a midday briefing. “However, we’re continuing to respond effectively.” She said KCHD staff are being called in to step up contact tracing.

As part of the county’s three-phase reopening plan, KCHD adopted a “traffic light” system for monitoring multiple factors related to COVID-19 and informing the public about them. Buchanan said Wednesday the case counts metric has been at a “red light” status since Monday, May 25. However, she tamped down on the idea the higher case counts would cause a slowdown in phase two, which began on Tuesday, or a step back to phase one.

“Like we’ve said all along, one benchmark is not what we’re going to use to determine moving forward or moving backward,” Buchanan said. “We’re going to look at [the factors] together, and the context of these cases.”

Other major “traffic light” benchmarks, such as hospital capacity and testing rates, are still listed as “green.” The benchmarks will be updated on Friday.

“It’s not unexpected that the number of cases will go up and down, but what’s important is that the number of deaths and hospitalizations have remained [stable], so that’s a good thing,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said in a statement to WUOT News.

Two Knox Countians are currently hospitalized. Five have died. 313 people are considered “recovered,” meaning people whose COVID symptoms improved to the point they could be released from isolation.

Buchanan, the county’s chief public health official, offered a cautionary note for Knox County residents reluctant to follow five basic steps to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, including wearing facial masks and practicing physical distancing.

“If we all do those, we all get to move forward [in the reopening process],” Buchanan said. “If we don’t, we either have to stay here or even maybe go backwards. And we don’t want to do that.”

One of the two recent COVID clusters in Knox County is at a Kroger grocery store in Knoxville’s Cedar Bluff neighborhood. Kroger officials confirmed three cases, and Buchanan said the health department has been working with the store to address the risk of further transmission among store staff or customers. Kroger says the employees that tested positive have been quarantined and have not been at the store in the past week.

During the press briefing, Buchanan also clarified a mistaken impression about COVID tests offered through the health department. Many people think the testing is free. It is indeed offered at no upfront cost, but the tests are charged to the health department, and therefore county taxpayers. Buchanan said health department workers will collect insurance information from people coming through its drive-through testing site so insurance companies can be billed for the tests. Those without insurance can still be tested at no charge.