Some Details Emerge in Understanding Dimensions of COVID in Knox County

Mar 25, 2020

Knox County Health Department communicable disease expert Charity Menefee speaks to reporters at a briefing, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.
Credit Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

Knox County has twenty confirmed cases of COVID-19. Six of the patients have recovered, and four have been hospitalized.

Knox County Health Department communicable disease specialist Charity Menefee briefed reporters midday Wednesday, updating information about the known spread of COVID-19 and reiterating messages about hygiene and social distancing.

Typically, recovery time for mild cases of COVID-19 is five to six days, but Menefee said she didn’t have specific data for the six people considered recovered in Knox County. No details were offered about the four hospitalized patients.

The health department is also in the process of contacting and interviewing people those patients have had contact with. Epidemiologists call this contact tracing. It helps health officials better understand the spread of the illness through the community.

“We immediately contact that person who has tested positive,” Menefee said. “We do a very in-depth interview with those individuals. We want to talk to people that [confirmed cases] have been in close contact with, and…we ask them to stay at home and we inform them what to do if they start developing symptoms.”

Epidemiologists frequently employ a bell curve model to visualize the effect of an illness, such as COVID-19, moving through a community over time. Menefee said Knox County is in the early growth stage of that curve and that more cases are expected before the area sees a slowdown and eventual decrease. How many more cases, and how severe they will be, are unknown. Cases have been confirmed in six of the nine counties in the Knoxville metro area; Grainger, Loudon and Union have yet to report confirmed cases.

Most of the people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are younger and middle-aged people, ages 18 to 49. Menefee said more information is needed to understand why cases are clustering in that age range. It could be that social distancing is helping keep older, more vulnerable people protected, or that younger people felt less vulnerable and therefore engaged in activity, such as social gatherings, that put them at a bigger risk of catching the novel coronavirus.

“I think we need to see more data on that,” Menefee said. “I’m very hopeful that these measures we’re taking are working and will continue to work.”

County health officials have used legal tools under state law to help slow the spread of COVID-19, including this week’s “Safer at Home” order, which ordered non-essential businesses to close. But actually getting those businesses to shut down requires their cooperation, Menefee said. Businesses not complying with the order are sometimes reported to the Health Department or Knoxville’s 311 information line.

“Our environmental health and some other team members will follow up with reports and have talks with those businesses,” Menefee said. “We are reaching out and having discussions as we get those reports.”

For the first time, medical providers, government leaders and the public are getting a fuller picture of how many COVID tests are being conducted. Under orders from the governor’s office, private labs began reporting their total test numbers Monday. As of Tuesday, more than 11,000 tests had been processed by state and private labs. 667 cases were confirmed, a six percent positive rate. Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey cautioned people not to read too much into the numbers yet, because there is a backlog in processing tests. More data will help fill in the picture in the coming days and weeks.

The county health department has committed to releasing local numbers at 11:00 a.m. ET each day. The Tennessee Department of Health updates its figures at 3:00 p.m. ET, and health officials have said there will be some discrepancies at times between the two figures.