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East Tennessee's COVID-19 case rates are trending up, despite progress elsewhere in the state

In Davidson County, home to Nashville, the case rate has trended down for about ten days. In East Tennessee, most counties are seeing record increases.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — For the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Tennessee was seemingly spared.

It took the Tennessee Department of Health's 16-county region 81 days to reach 1,000 confirmed cases. It took Davidson County just 31 days.

In the past month, however, that's changed.

"Our cases have increased quite a bit, our deaths have gone up," said Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department. "Data has shown some places — when they closed bars — have seen their case rates go down."

On Wednesday evening, the Knox County Board of Health voted to close all bars in the county beginning Aug. 3. The board defined a bar as any business that makes 50 percent or more of their profit through alcohol sales. 

Credit: WBIR Data Team

The Tennessee Department of Health defines the case rate as the number of new cases a day per 100,000 people, averaged over 14 days. Any county with a case rate equal to or less than 10 is considering to be below the "threshold for acceptable disease transmission within the community."

As of July 31, Davidson County — home to Nashville — had a case rate of about 37.41, a big decline from 51.64 on July 20.

In Hamblen County, the case rate was 63.36 on July 31, a significant increase from the case rate of 34.87 on July 20. In Knox County, the case rate was 23.83 on July 31, up from 18.29 on July 20. 

Credit: WBIR
As of July 31, all East Tennessee counties exceeded the state's "disease burden" threshold.

Those numbers influence the counties' transmission rate, or R naught. 

"The transmission rate is, for every person who has a disease... how many other people are they going to make sick?" Dr. Buchanan said.

The goal is to have a transmission rate below one. That would mean the spread is slowing down. 

Credit: CORE-19

According to the University of Tennessee's Coronavirus-19 Outbreak Response Experts (CORE-19), the transmission rate is below one in parts of Middle Tennessee and Shelby County.

In East Tennessee, the counties are all red, yellow or orange — meaning the cases are still growing exponentially. 

Dr. Martha Buchanan said it requires a team effort to reduce the spread in the East Tennessee region.

"The virus nor people respect boundaries of counties. We go back and forth a lot," she said. "I think it would be helpful if we had across the board, similar policies in limiting the spread of disease."