On Wednesday afternoon, the Knox County Board of Health held a meeting to address the rise of positive COVID-19 cases in Knox County and the benchmarks necessary to care for the public.
Unlike the last meeting held by the board, this meeting was held in-person as well as made available to stream online and watch on Community Television. Mayor Glenn Jacobs was also present at this meeting.
As usual, the board first established the meeting minutes for the previous meeting. After some discussion and edits of the minutes, the board approved the minutes for the record.
Then, the board discussed the benchmarks for reopening Knox County, including data about hospitalizations, statistics regarding numbers of cases — which are currently rising — and anecdotal evidence from local healthcare providers.
Director of the Knox County Health Department Dr. Martha Buchanan commented on the increasing number of cases.
“Since last week, our growth rate has been 55% for just Knox County … [which is] concerning and reminds us all that COVID-19 is still active in our community,” Buchanan said.
By using a system of red, yellow and green lights, the board is able to predict and indicate the best ways to respond to COVID-19, as well as work with healthcare providers to assess the details of hospitalizations and test reports.
Dr. James Shamiyeh, senior vice president and chief quality officer at the UT Medical Center, shared that the average length of hospitalization for COVID-19 patients is about seven days and expressed concerns about overwhelming the healthcare system and the use of the emergency department based on current cases.
“The emergency department is back up to 100%; there was a lot of pent-up demand, and now that is back. It’s really the rate of rise of hospitalizations that has caught our attention,” Shamiyeh said.
The board discussed the differences between Knox County’s own phases of reopening and the Tennessee Pledge, which is a statewide option for the county to adopt, and also discussed the possibility of a hybrid of both.
Dr. Patrick O’Brien, an emergency medicine physician, proposed a public health order for the board to consider which would include mandatory face coverings for public places that are specifically under the jurisdiction of the Knox County Board of Health.
“I want to do something proactively that the science tells me works, and it’s something simple to do until the time we don’t need it,” O’Brien said.
Instead of fining people, O’Brien hopes that masks will be made available for people to wear as a warning to enforce the order.
“We want to do two things: decrease deaths and decrease the rate of hospitalization so the hospitals don’t get overwhelmed,” O’Brien said.
After some disagreement from the Knox County attorney Myers Morton and commentary from other members of the board, including Mayor Jacobs, the board took a break to fully read through the proposed document in order to continue discussion.
Morton also expressed his belief that the proposed order is unconstitutional because of the vague language he believes is used.
“Nobody knows what’s prohibited,” Morton said.
A friendly amendment was added to exclude K-12 public schools from the proposed order.
A vote approved the mask order, making masks mandatory within indoor spaces in Knox County unless eating or drinking. Masks are not required in outdoor spaces. The board approved use of the Tennessee Pledge as a basis for action with modifications as necessary.
Previously, meetings of the board have been held at two-week intervals. The board voted to continue with this schedule and hold a Zoom meeting in two weeks.