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East TN medical leaders warn community to follow safety precautions as COVID-19 cases, deaths rise

Medical leaders from several area hospitals took part in Tuesday's Knox County Health Department briefing.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — With deaths, new cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 on the rise, East Tennessee medical leaders warned the community at large Tuesday to follow safety guidelines to stop the virus's spread.

Dr. Keith Gray, chief medical officer at University of Tennessee Medical Center, said right now there's not a need for new health measures to halt the spread of the virus. 

But, Gray said, the community needs to commit more to following the handful of guidelines that have been emphasized since the March outbreak.

Those guidelines include, among others, frequent handwashing, wearing a mask in public and maintaining proper social distance.

"We ask for your partnerships," Gray said, taking part virtually in Tuesday's regular briefing with the Knox County Health Department.

With Thanksgiving approaching, Dr. Mark Browne, chief medical officer with Covenant Health, said everyone should be mindful of the risks of prolonged exposure at the traditional holiday gathering.

Right now, with COVID-19 still so active in the community, such exposures like big family meals are "risky behavior," he said.

Tuesday saw a new daily high in new cases in Knox County -- 236.

Deaths tied to the disease are now at 121, an increase of two victims from Monday. More than a dozen people have died from virus complications in the past week.

Hospitalizations as of Tuesday were at 78.

Also taking part in the call with the Health Department's chief, Dr. Martha Buchanan, were Dr. Joe Childs of East Tennessee Children's Hospital and Dr. Frank Beuerlein of Tennova Healthcare.

The doctors said they confer daily with each other to monitor the level of sick patients in their hospitals. They rarely appear together publicly to talk about how staffs are handling the new coronavirus.

Browne noted the annual flu season is now at hand in East Tennessee. It's "critical" that residents get a flu shot to combat the annual threat, he said. Free flu shots are available in the community. 

RELATED: Vanderbilt Study: TN counties without mask requirements have higher COVID-19 death toll per capita

Hospitals see a rise usually during flu season of sick patients. And with COVID-19 already circulating, the presence of the two diseases at one time creates an additional burden on hospitals and staff to respond to the community's needs.

The doctors declined to say what additional level of COVID-19 cases would prompt them to raise a red flag about health care capabilities and response. The benchmark, as promoted by the Health Department, has been sitting at a "yellow" or caution level for months.

Credit: Vanderbilt