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Knox Co. Health Dept. benchmarks show worsening COVID-19 spread ahead of the holidays

Data from KCHD shows 47 Knox County residents have died of COVID-19 in November, making it the COVID-19 pandemic's deadliest month so far.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — For the second week in a row, there were no green lights in the Knox County Health Department's weekly COVID-19 benchmarks.

"These are the worst numbers we've seen," KCHD director Dr. Martha Buchanan told the Board of Health on Friday, Nov. 20.

From Nov. 1 to Nov. 23, data from the Knox County Health Department showed 47 deaths from COVID-19, making November the pandemic's deadliest month. That benchmark, as well as new cases and testing turnaround, saw red lights.

KCHD data showed 35 deaths in the month of July; 25 in September; 22 in October; 20 in August; 4 in April and one in March. No deaths from COVID-19 were reported in May and June.

Credit: WBIR Data Team

"We continue to average at least a death or two a day, if not more," said Dr. Buchanan to the Board of Health on Nov. 23. "Those are Knox County residents that are dying from COVID-19, and that's heartbreaking."

The surge in deaths was expected as hospitalization numbers continued to grow. As of Nov. 24, the benchmark data showed 393 were hospitalized with COVID-19 in East Tennessee, the most since the pandemic began. KCHD labeled that benchmark as yellow, but noted the worsening trend.

Credit: WBIR Data Team

"My understanding is, where we are now — census and capacity-wise — is worse than our worst flu season, did I get that right?" said Dr. Maria Hurt during the Nov. 20 Board of Health meeting. "We're not at the height of flu season."

"That's absolutely correct," Dr. James Shamiyeh of UT Medical Center replied.

While the Knox County Health Department's website showed about a quarter of beds were available across East Tennessee's hospitals, Dr. Shamiyeh said they were starting to feel more of a strain.

"That suggests that there's 25% capacity in the community of beds. That is absolutely not what we're feeling," he told the board. "From my understanding, that's every bed including all the beds at Children's. And I'm not knowing whether all those beds are consistently staffed."

For now, Dr. Shamiyeh said hospitals were able to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients. However, if the upward trend continues, they may have to scale back on certain procedures.

"We've had a surge unit intermittently open [at UTMC]," he said. "I think each system is having those conversations, but clearly our goal is to prevent that from happening."

Sustained or increased public health capacity, the third benchmark, was also labeled as a yellow light.