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Knox County at the Top of White House COVID 'Red Zone' List for Tennessee

Claire Heddles

Knox County is number one on a list of Tennessee counties in the "red zone" for COVID cases in an October 25 report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Red zones are defined as places with more than 101 cases per 100,000 people, and a testing positivity rate at or above 10.1 percent. The ranking of red zones is determined by the number of new cases reported in the three weeks prior to the report date. Knox County is ranked first, followed by Hamilton County and Sullivan County. The city of Knoxville is at the top of the list of metro areas in the red zone. 

The October 25 report recommends that health officials "work with communities to limit large and small social gatherings." However, during a meeting on October 28, Knox County's Board of Health members voted not to extend a regulation limiting social gatherings to 25 people. Board member Dr. Patrick O'Brien said the board should let the regulation expire because it was not being enforced, not because it shouldn't be followed. The regulation on gatherings is no longer in effect. 

"We still have a long way to go and we can let something go that is not being enforced," O'Brien said. "I don't know that this one is really helping us that much." 

The report also warns that resources may become limited in Tennessee, "all indicators of community spread are increasing, including percent of nursing homes with positive staff members and residents, and community spread is increasing hospital admissions, leading to potential resource constraints."

At Knox County regional hospitals, ICU beds are at 88 percent capacity with 36 currently available beds. During the most recent Board of Health meeting, UT Medical Center's Dr. James Shamiyeh called October the worst month of the pandemic. He said staffing shortages in hospitals are the primary concern in the short run, but resources like beds and ventilators could also become strained if cases continue to rise.  

Nationwide, Tennessee is ranked ninth for new cases per 100,000 people. Tennessee was ranked tenth in the nation for new deaths per 100,000 people on October 25.

A Congressional coronavirus panel issued a press release on October 20 that included six weeks of White House COVID reports from August and September for all 50 states. The press release links Governor Lee's hesitancy to issue a mask mandate to an increase in cases statewide. It reads, "The Task Force’s September 13 report recommended: 'Establish statewide mask mandate. COVID-19 is being brought into nursing homes through community transmission.' Governor Lee refused and instead signed an order repealing many coronavirus-related restrictions effective October 1. The state remains in the “red zone,” and cases are up 46% in the past two weeks." 

Governor Lee has emphasized local control, extending an executive order that allows county leaders to pass mask mandates and publicizing a mask-wearing public service announcement focused on choice. The most recent report says, "mitigation efforts must be increased to control community spread to include mask wearing."

See the full White House reports to Governor Bill Lee from October 18 and October 25below, obtained by WUOT from the Knox County Health Department. 


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