KNOX COUNTY, Tenn — A team of federal public health representatives said Tennessee needs a statewide mask mandate and blamed local confusion on a lack of consistent messaging from the state and federal governments, a list of recommendations issued to the Knox Co. Health Department showed.
After naming Knox County a COVID-19 hotspot earlier this month, three representatives from the CDC, FEMA and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response told the Health Department consistent messaging on masks is needed from all levels of the government to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
"Currently there is a county-wide indoor mask mandate in Knox County, but surrounding counties do not have mandates and are unlikely to pass them. A statewide mandate is needed," the report said.
It advised a member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force call or visit Governor Bill Lee and recommend passing a statewide mask mandate.
The report also asked the health department to consider identifying "trusted and influential celebrities" to encourage mask wearing, specifically naming Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift, Chris Blue and University of Tennessee coaches.
"The message should be that it is important to protect the economy AND the health of our citizens (not either/or)," the report said.
It said the local political and social context prevents a return to lockdown, making social distancing and face masks "the most important factors" for stopping the coronavirus spread.
The federal report was complimentary toward the health department response, despite community transmission and a "rapid increases in cases since the beginning of July, especially among those under 65 years of age."
"The Knox County Health Department has an excellent understanding of the epidemiological data, appreciates the urgency of the situation, and communicates this information to the public through regular media briefings," the report said.
In a list of six recommendations, the federal officials said the county needs to decrease test turnaround time and should explore the use of university laboratories to increase testing capacity.
"Hospital administrators were frustrated by the lack of reliability of supply orders due to the federal government diverting supplies to state labs," the report said.
Among the other recommendations to the health department:
- Work with the state to get CARES Act funding. Currently, the department funds all COVID operations out of its regular budget.
- Consider sending surge staffing to hospitals to continue non-essential services, rather than current plans which call for limited operations as COVID-19 cases reach surge levels.
- Engage volunteer and community organizations to help with COVID-19 response efforts.
- Explore developing a long-term community recovery group.
The report said the health department requested assistance managing coronavirus in homeless populations and information about the anti-viral drug Remdesivir, including cost.
It indicated KCHD staff needs help dealing with stress, fatigue, burnout and frustration, and that staff requested information about strategies that have worked in other areas to open schools.