KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continued to climb to new daily highs this week, and it's taking a serious toll on East Tennessee's public health capabilities.
Knox County Health Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said the health system is "fundamentally overwhelmed" by COVID-19 cases. Some hospitals such as UT Medical Center have begun to defer non-essential procedures in order to make more room for COVID patients.
On Thursday, Charity Menefee, KCHD's Director of Communicable and Environmental Disease and Emergency Preparedness, urged people in the community to take personal responsibility to prevent further spreading the virus in all cases. She said to assume at this point anyone could be infected, including themselves, saying contact tracing is incredibly strained with the sheer number of daily cases and delays in lab reporting.
KCHD has implemented new CDC recommendations for infection investigations and contact tracing that prioritizes those who KCHD is notified of within six days of a patient's diagnosis, as well as children and people 60 and over.
Because of that, not all new cases will receive a call from the health department. KCHD said anyone tested should take personal responsibility to isolate until their results return and to follow the CDC's and Tennessee Department of Health's isolation and quarantine guidelines.
KCHD is also now no longer able to provide proof of quarantine or "return to work" letters to employers, so it is asking people and businesses to ensure they are following the proper safety precautions to prevent COVID from spreading in their workplace.
"Please do not wait for a call from public health to take action," she said. "We cannot say this enough, we really want you to rethink how you socialize. We still want you to connect, but not do it within 6 feet of people."
Along with continuing to follow the "Five Core Actions" of keeping personal distance, wearing face coverings and washing hands, KCHD said people should seriously consider not attending close-contact gatherings in person that may happen through the holidays -- such as holiday parties and parades.
The health department is preparing for the first COVID-19 vaccines to arrive soon, but still has few specific details it can talk about because the number of vaccines it expects to receive fluctuates daily. It said it is ready to begin the rollout the day after it receives those vaccines, though, and said it anticipates releasing regular updates soon once the effort is underway.
Menefee echoed state and national disease experts that the current COVID-19 mitigation efforts will need to continue through at least spring once a significant percentage of people, particularly high-risk patients, receive all vaccine doses.