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Several East TN counties at 'high' risk for COVID-19, recommended to mask up in public again

Per the CDC's recommendations, counties with "high" community levels are recommended to wear masks in public when indoors.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending people in East Tennessee to take precautions against COVID-19 again -- including wearing masks -- as counties see another upswing in cases and hospitalizations.

As of July 22, the CDC said Anderson, Campbell, Grainger, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Jefferson, Morgan, and Roane counties are at "high" risk for community impact from COVID-19 as cases and hospitalizations increase proportionately to their population size. The CDC gauges impact and risk by comparing the number of cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days with the number of hospitalizations and available hospital beds.

Per the CDC's recommendations, counties with "high" community levels are recommended to wear masks in public when indoors and should take extra precautions needed to protect people at high risk of developing a serious illness. 

Once the average number of new cases over seven days exceeds 200 per 100,000 people, the CDC considers a community to be at "high" risk if the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past seven days is greater than or equal to 10 admissions per 100,000 people, or if more than 10% of hospital beds are being used by COVID-19 patients.

The counties shaded in orange below are considered "high" risk, while the ones in yellow are "medium" risk and the ones in green are "low" risk.

Credit: CDC

Knox County remains in the "medium" risk category due to it having relatively fewer hospitalizations compared to its larger population size. The county passed the seven-day case threshold according to the CDC's data, but is under the hospitalization threshold. The CDC's data said Knox County has seen an estimated eight COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people in the past seven days, and 3.9% of all beds are utilized by COVID-19 patients.

Regionally, hospitalizations have remained relatively low with small and steady increases over the past two months. As of Wednesday, the Knox County Health Department reported 109 total COVID-19 inpatients at East Tennessee regional hospitals with 22 in the ICU.

For comparison, the omicron wave over the winter saw hospitalizations peak at 700 patients on January 31 after a rapid spike in hospitalizations that month. 

Cases of COVID-19 are increasing, with Knox County reporting high test positivity rates of around 35% on average, but it's become more difficult to accurately determine the virus' total spread because many people are choosing to use at-home tests rather than the lab-conducted PCR tests. 

It's suspected the true number of COVID-19 cases -- particularly milder cases -- is currently much higher than what's actually being reported in the data. Knox County reported roughly 2,500 PCR tests were being conducted weekly as of mid-July despite the high positivity rates, compared to the nearly 15,000 tests reported at the peak of the omicron wave in late January.

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