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'Cautiously optimistic' | Knox County benchmarks show promising COVID-19 trends

After weeks of record highs, health officials are reporting a decline in both current hospitalizations and new cases. Health leaders hope deaths will decline next.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn — For the second day straight, Knox County reported fewer than 200 new cases of COVID-19. Those are numbers the county hasn't seen since late November.

"We haven't seen the numbers that we anticipated after the holiday break," said Dr. Keith Gray, chief medical officer at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. "That's hope for all of us."

This week, the Knox County Health Department rated the new cases benchmark as "yellow" with the 14-day trendline showing a downward curve. The benchmark for testing was listed as yellow too. 

Credit: WBIR Data Team

While the hospitalization benchmark remains red for now, data released by the Knox County Health Department show promising trends. 

On Tuesday, there were 510 people hospitalized for COVID-19 across East Tennessee's 16 hospitals. That's a roughly 24 percent decline from the 671 people hospitalized on January 7.

RELATED: Knox Co. hospitals "hopeful and cautiously optimistic" as COVID-19 numbers continue to trend downward

"We've seen a recent downtrend in the number of hospitalizations not only here, but throughout the community," said Dr. Gray. "We've seen a pretty significant decline in the number of new cases per day and resultingly the number of new hospitalizations."

Even with the downward trends, Dr. Gray cautioned against a normalcy bias. He said hospitals are still experiencing “historically high levels” of COVID-19 patients and that their “surge capacity is at red for now.”

As of Tuesday, there were just 13 available ICU beds across the region's 16 hospitals. 

Credit: WBIR Data Team

For the last 73 days straight, KCHD data showed at least one person has died of COVID-19. On most days, the county has lost many more than that — with at least 35 deaths in the last seven days.

But deaths can be a lagging indicator of the local situation at hand.

"Hospitalizations lag behind a week or two," Dr. Kevin Smith of the Tennessee Medical Association told 10News in October. "Deaths lag behind two or three weeks."

If cases and hospitalizations are trending down now, local health leaders hope deaths will soon follow. However, they said that could change if everyone doesn't do their part.

"We must stay vigilant," Dr. Gray said. "We are hopeful that the vaccine will continue to help those numbers trend down and that everyone will have access to the vaccine very soon."