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County's health board to weigh in on plans to shift to Phase 3 of virus response

Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said Friday county attorneys had advised that the Knox County Board of Health needs to weigh in on moving to Phase 3.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The Knox County Health Department will look to its board Wednesday for guidance on when and how the county can move on to further easing of social restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said Friday county attorneys had advised that the Knox County Board of Health needs to weigh in on moving to a so-called Phase 3.  

"It'll be up to the Board of Health what direction they take," she said.

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The board features eight members, including medical experts, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas. Also, Buchanan is an ex-officio member in her function as department director.

The board meeting Wednesday will be public.

Buchanan said virus "data looks good at this point," but that she would wait on recommendations for shifting to Phase 3 until after the board meeting.

The county on May 26 went to Phase 2 of a phased reopening plan for businesses and the public to begin recirculating. Most businesses are back open now but are required to follow specific guidelines such as employees wearing face masks while working closely with the public.

Phase 2 prohibits social gatherings of 50 people or more, features strict physical distancing directions and encourages people to continue to work remotely when possible. The public is urged to wear a mask in public settings.

Phase 3, as previously stated by the county, would allow bigger gatherings but keep the maximum at 100 people.

Phase 3 guidelines also include minimizing exposure to social settings where distancing may not be practical, unless precautionary measures are observed, and resuming "non-essential" travel. Businesses under Phase 3 also are asked to maintain physical distancing protocols when possible and when possible to slowly transition to increasing services in order to give the organization time to build and test safety protocols.

Buchanan said current plans address only a three-phase plan. The board could expand that if it wanted to, she said.

Also Friday, the Health Department announced that it was resuming distribution of free masks provided by the state. The federal EPA has advised the state the masks are safe, after a Nashville TV station raised questions last month about a chemical used to treat them.

The masks are free during the week at Health Department headquarters on Dameron Avenue, and the department's community partners also will make them available. Knox County already has handed out more than 140,000.

The department Friday referred questions about new guidelines to visit nursing homes to the state. Gov. Bill Lee said this week visitors would be allowed starting Monday to go to nursing homes in counties with a low-disease "burden." Visitors will have to follow restrictions.

The state told 10News on Thursday it had identified about 10 counties don't meet the risk benchmark including Davidson and Shelby counties. Knox County was not on that list.

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