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KCHD: Virus volume is becoming so high it's time to reevaluate contact tracing process

The county reported 447 new cases Tuesday. It's been seeing consistent daily case rates of 200 and 300 a day.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Knox County's constant rise in COVID-19 cases is making it tougher for public health staff to identify and track everyone coming in contact with a carrier, Knox County Health Department leaders said Tuesday.

The volume means there's a greater population of people who may unwittingly have been exposed who now should stay off by themselves, Dr. Martha Buchanan, department director, said in a media briefing.

As a result, the department is reevaluating how it does contact tracing and who it must pay attention to first, she said.

"Performing contact tracing during widespread community transmission like we have now is not as effective as it was earlier in this pandemic or as it is when we're managing a traditional outbreak," Buchanan said.

"Because of this we are reviewing our contact tracing strategy with our team to identify ways we can best prioritize this process."

KCHD will be changing its contact-tracing efforts, she said.

Some regions in the state already are at the point where they can't keep up. Knox County is near that point, she said.

One possible option in the future: Targeting contact tracing to focus on "those most at risk of spreading the disease or becoming seriously ill," she said.

The county reported 447 new cases Tuesday. It's been seeing consistent daily case rates of 200 and 300 a day. In the month of November, KCHD reported nearly 6,000 new cases of COVID-19, up from roughly 3,500 in September and October.

Credit: WBIR

There are now 2,578 active cases. Deaths among Knox Countians stands at 172, including 5 more deaths as of Tuesday, according to KCHD.

Buchanan said the community must take responsibility to stop the spread. That includes quarantining after getting a test while awaiting results just in case a person is positive. It also means alerting others about potential exposure, and staying away from others if one gets a positive result.

Following this guidance helps break the "chain of transmission," Buchanan said. People also need to continue to follow core practices such as frequent handwashing, social distancing and wearing a mask while in public.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported 113,821 new cases of COVID-19 during November, shattering the previous monthly record of 64,533 cases. 

KCHD saw positive case counts go up after Halloween. It hasn't come off that increase yet, and now many people have just spent time together at Thanksgiving.

"We really are very concerned about that trend," Dr. Buchanan said Tuesday. "We're going to spike again after Thanksgiving. And then we have Christmas and we're gonna spike. After that, we have New Year's and a spike after that."

Health experts nationwide urged families to observe limited gatherings at Thanksgiving to help stop the virus's spread.

The county is adding contact tracers but it doesn't have an infinite number available, she said.

"It's really up to all of us to practice all of those things every day all of the time in order to reduce the numbers," the director said. "You know what to do...We don't know when we hit the peak until we start going down again. "