County's COVID-19 cases spike

Judy Hurst prepares a COVID-19 swab test Monday at the Loudon County Health Department.

Loudon County health officials are urging residents to take extra precautions after the county last week was declared a red zone for positive COVID-19 cases.

The status was elevated after 13.8% of administered COVID-19 tests came back positive.

“The red zone, what that means is if our positivity is over 10%,” Teresa Harrill, Loudon County Health Department director, said. “As of Friday, we had 1,942 cases and of those cases, 1,723 are inactive. On Thursday, we had 198 active and it was 204 on Wednesday — we’re kind of flip flopping, so it’s gone up. It’s looking at the testing more so than the population of the county.”

The county saw a spike Monday of 37 new cases followed by 33 more Tuesday. The total number of active cases rose Tuesday to 266.

Tests have been in high demand since the outbreak in mid-March. Dozens of cars lined Rayder Avenue and High Street on Monday as people received testing at the health department.

Results are now distributed much faster with a typical turnaround of 24 hours.

“I don’t want it to sound bad, but we’ve trying to cap it around 50 tests per day, but sometimes we’ll take some people that don’t make an appointment and just show up,” Harrill said. “We encourage folks to call us so we can do the assessment. The assessment is basically what we have to use for our lab — name, phone number, date of birth, change of address. If they call ahead, it gives us a little more control of going ahead and putting that stuff in the computer. When 1:30 p.m. happens, then basically we collect the specimen and there’s so much work after that.”

Georgia Institute of Technology recently created a real-time COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool comprised of a percentage scale of 0-100. The risk level is the estimated chance that at least one COVID-19 positive individual will be present at a gathering in a county based on the size of the event.

Loudon County is listed at 66%, which is 20% lower than neighboring Roane County.

As of Tuesday, the county has recorded 2,039 total cases — 1,758 of which have recovered. The total also includes 15 deaths and 52 hospitalizations since the end of March.

Harrill believes the rise in cases is due to a relaxation of following guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state officials.

“We definitely feel like people are letting their guard down, and we feel like people are not following the guidelines about gatherings,” Harrill said. “People say, ‘Our numbers have gone up since schools have started.’ It has but not terribly. Since July 18 in Loudon County, we’ve had 236 positives. That’s not terrible if you think about July, August, September, October and now we’re in November. For us, the concern is that people are not continuing with the masks, not washing hands. Again, we’ve got positives and household contacts. Household contacts, most of the time, are considered probable cases and then you’ve got everyone quarantining.”

Three national medical companies — Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech — have claimed “a break-through” after numerous trials of vaccines yielded positive results and are on track to being distributed to the public.

Harrill said the health department is expecting to receive vaccines in the near future.

“The good news is there is going to be the vaccine soon,” she said. “We just had some preliminary planning on that. There’s not been anything major yet, but we’ve seen some of that guidance. When we have our flu shot clinic on Thursday, that’s going to kind of be our practice for how we will distribute the COVID vaccine. It’s all consuming, you can tell people we’re tired, we’re testing out the wazoo. We test everybody that shows up at our front door.”

The health department is located at 600 Rayder Ave., Loudon. For more information, call 865-458-2662.

Scho

ols impactedLoudon County and Lenoir City schools have also experienced issues since returning in August, but most positive cases have been reported among staff and faculty members.

“The contact tracing is where we are seeing the biggest issue, and that’s just the nature of the beast because we don’t have enough space to get six feet apart,” Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City director of schools, said. “We typically don’t see students become positive unless they have other outside contacts. We saw a little bit of a spike after fall break and then last week. Being a small school system, we have a lot of husbands and wives and maybe one’s at the elementary school and one’s at the high school. We have family members, and that plays into fact as well because if one is positive, then the other has to be quarantined.”

Mike Garren, county director of schools, said all schools have adhered to CDC guidelines and improved contact-tracing methods.

“The protocols we have in place at the schools with assigned seating, social-distancing practices, staggered class bell schedules, modified bus halls and the students’ arrival and dismissal from school have proved to minimize the number of students that are identified in contact tracing,” Garren said in an email correspondence. “We have averaged between four or five close contacts per positive case. The numbers tend to be lower in the elementary and higher in the middle and high schools because of multiple course offerings and after-school sports. Contact tracing does take a significant amount of time from our school administrators and central office staff that would normally be utilized for instructional support of teachers.”

With flu season inching closer and a continuous rise in positive cases, schools could temporarily return to virtual learning.

“We’re always discussing what we can do to serve kids and keep schools open,” Barker said. “We’re also saying, ‘What else can we do that will help mitigate the situation that’s around us?’ We’re doing some pretty creative things to make sure we have some sense of normalcy. As far as hybrid goes, we just did not see the success in students academically when we went that route. We left a meeting Friday saying, ‘Let’s not make any changes right now.’ Everybody has a different perspective, and right now I think we’re looking keeping students very actively engaged and that just doesn’t happen when they’re at home.”