A few days before Christmas, the White House Coronavirus Task Force brought national attention to Knox County, but the region’s newfound notoriety was no gift. The task force reportedthat Knox County had the highest number of new COVID cases and the highest test positivity rate for any region its size in the nation for the second week in a row.
At that time, failure to follow COVID safety guidance as holiday gatherings ramped up likely led to Knox County’s number one place on the Task Force’s “Red Zone” list, along with several other regions in East Tennessee.
Dr. Spencer Gregg, director of the Student Health Center, says that Knox County’s high COVID burden in December was “very unfortunate” and yet the predictable result of widespread failure to follow the guidelines that have become so familiar over the last year.
“We know what measures reduce infection transmission,” Gregg said. “Paramount within that guidance is appropriate social distancing, ... consistent mask-wearing when around others outside of your immediate household members and adherence to routine hand cleansing procedures with soap and water or appropriate alcohol rub. Failure to consistently apply this guidance is a significant contributor to a rise in infections.”
Gregg also believes that the social obligations of the holiday season went ahead as planned for many in the region.
“Another likely contributing factor ... was social group gatherings with extended family and friends, especially where eating and drinking were occurring,” Gregg said. “This is probably one of the readiest means of transmission.”
This factor in Knoxville’s COVID high spread rate highlights Tennessee’s relatively light restrictions on in-person gatherings.
Now, almost a month later and the week that students return for the spring semester, new daily cases have stabilized at around 200 a day as compared with the record high of 724 new cases on Dec. 19.
But will students’ return to campus this week trigger an even greater spike in COVID cases than the holiday season? Experts like Gregg are concerned that the beginning of the spring semester may herald an increased COVID burden similar to the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. But the same guidelines can go far to help avoid such a spike.
“The expectation on campus is that we abide by health and safety guidance, participate in community testing where requested, isolate when infected, quarantine when exposed and cooperate with contact tracing efforts,” Gregg said. “Taking those expectations beyond the borders of our campus as they apply is just as important. ... It is incumbent on all of us to be responsible members of the community by doing so.”
In a media briefing last Thursday, Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, said that returning students could help contain the spread by practicing what the department calls the “five core actions:” social distancing, wearing a mask, washing and sanitizing hands, cleaning surfaces and staying home when sick.
Without these actions, Buchanan warned that Knox County could see a COVID burden similar to that of December.
Buchanan reminded community members to treat themselves and others as if they already have COVID and to take the necessary precautions of getting tested and quarantining at the first sign of exposure or symptoms.
“Do not wait to receive a call from public health to start taking action,” Buchanan said. “Isolate yourself if you have symptoms or have been exposed and start calling your close contacts to make them aware so they can begin quarantining. Additionally, regardless of whether you have symptoms, you need to quarantine until you get test results.”
None of these guidelines are new. But as Buchanan says, there is the hope of what may be called the sixth core action, or getting vaccinated.
Around 14,000 residents of Knox County have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine — mostly health care workers, first responders and those over the age of 75. For now, there are not enough vaccines for everyone who wants them, nor are most college students eligible to receive them.
But some day, even college students will be able to receive the vaccine and life on campus will make a slow return to normalcy.
“Be patient. We know that demand is going to outpace supply for a while, and that’s not unique to Knox County, it’s not unique to Tennessee, it’s happening across the county,” Buchanan said. “We look forward to the day when that’s not so, but it’s going to be a while.”