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In the year since COVID-19 pandemic began, politics may have hurt efforts to save lives

A former White House Coronavirus Task Force official indicated Tennessee may have 'cried wolf' with Spring 2020 lockdowns.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — While the future appears far brighter than it did in March 2020, a fierce debate continues over how to contain the coronavirus. Knox County's top doctor said that the political fight that divided the community may have hurt efforts to save lives. 

Dr. Martha Buchanan said the county had a pandemic plan, but the Knox County Health Department was not ready for this. 

"None of our plans were based on something that lasted a whole year. At all. And we’re still, I mean, we’re not done," she said.

They also were not ready for the political divide over lockdowns, curfews and masks, Buchanan said.

"It kind of squished our little 'Pollyanna' idea of how the response would go, that everybody would just, you know, kind of go along," she said. 

From the national political stage to the Knox County Board of Health, politics soon dominated the pandemic.

"I think it was a challenge that we should have anticipated, but maybe we didn't anticipate would be so strong, especially locally," Buchanan said.

The resistance to restrictions seemed to begin during the lockdown from March through May when Tennessee did not see a spike in cases. 

On a September visit to the University of Tennessee, the White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator worried areas like Knox County had already 'cried wolf'—and people no longer trusted COVID-19 precautions even in the face of a forecasted winter surge. 

"When we shut down the country, we didn’t know the epidemic was going to be very isolated to the Northeast," said Dr. Deborah Birx. "We understand that in March and April we did this and we didn’t have a problem. And now we have this problem."

Officials said that 85% of Knox County's deaths related to COVID-19 were reported after Birx's visit. 

Some people refused to wear masks which could have prevented a further spread of the coronavirus, and Governor Bill Lee left mandate decisions to county leaders. 

"I think that if we'd had a unified plan for mass mandates across the country, and across the state, it would have it would have reduced disease," Buchanan said. 

She said it was a mistake not to address the political divide more effectively.

"We all want life to go back to more pre-pandemic and the economy to come back," she said. "We disagree and how to get there. But how could we have communicated better to get everybody on the same page." 

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