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Birx Stresses Flexibility in COVID Planning During Knoxville Visit

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

As active COVID cases at the University of Tennessee begin to plateau, a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force praised UT’s plans for the fall semester and issued warnings to students that their behavior will help determine what happens next.

Dr. Deborah Birx met Tuesday with University of Tennessee leaders, including system president Randy Boyd and Knoxville campus chancellor Donde Plowman. Also present at the meeting were Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Speaking to reporters after the meetings, Birx said closing the campus would be a bad idea. She said infected students could carry the virus back into their home communities, students have already financially committed to housing for the semester, and closure could mean students would feel more socially isolated. Birx also noted that COVID cases among students do not appear to be coming from in-person classroom instruction.

The University of Tennessee reported 499 active cases Tuesday, most of them among students. About 1,600 students and 100 university employees were in isolation. Knox County reported 219 new COVID cases Tuesday, the second-highest single-day total recorded so far in the pandemic.

Birx noted anecdotal reports that many students may be contracting or spreading the virus at bars, restaurants, parties and visits to off-campus housing, all locations where monitoring and safety measures are out of the university’s hands.

“To every student that’s not following the rules, what you’re creating super-spreader events. And we know that’s happened in community after community, and we don’t want it to happen here,” Birx said. “No matter where are in our lives, we have both freedom and responsibility, and I think every student needs to understand it’s their responsibility not to participate in super-spreader events.

Birx’s visit came the day before a scheduled meeting of the Knox County Board of Health. The agenda for the panel’s September 16 meeting includes discussion of a measure that would suspend alcohol sales at 10:00 p.m.

Local officials know the community best, Birx said, and need to find measures the public can come together to support. But finding that measure will be tough. The board has been criticized both for doing too little and doing too much, and has not issued any new health orders in the last six weeks. Its most recent order, issued in late July, initially closed bars, but that was quickly modified to a curfew after an outcry from bar owners. Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan said Tuesday the department has not taken any regulatory action for bar or restaurant violations since the curfew went into effect.

Birx mentioned the alcohol sales measure, but stopped short of telling the board which course to take.

“This whole bar question…is really critical, and I think that’s really what the county needs to look at,” Birx said. “Is it enforce the [current] curfew? Is it about enforcing that alcohol consumption needs to stop at ten p.m.?”

Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon said Birx “[S]hared very pragmatic, science-based, strategies for how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Knoxville. I hope the Board of Health and the Knox County Health Department will implement these strategies as soon as possible.”

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said, “I appreciate Dr. Birx coming down here and listening to us because that’s as important as anything. She said that Knox County, as a county, has a good plan in place and things are going well comparatively. That said, she was worried about the testing volume across the state. She also recommended curfews and limiting gatherings, which she has recommended everywhere she’s traveled.”

Jacobs said those questions will be discussed at Wednesday night’s Board of Health meeting.