KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — It has been months since the Knox County Board of Health met to discuss mask mandates, social distancing and other steps to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, they are meeting once again but will not be able to create regulations.
The Knox County Advisory Board of Health met in its new role to discuss rising COVID-19 cases across Tennessee. The meeting comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that nearly every East Tennessee county returns to wearing masks indoors as part of its new guidance.
During the meeting, Dr. Martha Buchanan said most new cases of COVID-19 were from people between 23 years old and 64 years old. The numbers starting rising in mid-July, she said.
“Vaccines are our way out of this current weight," she said.
Instead of recommending a county-wide mask mandate, the board said its top priority is to get as many people vaccinated as they can, as quickly as possible.
“The political environment right now is not in favor of mandates and so we need to gain public trust and have people listen to us and do the things we’re asking them to do,” Dr. Buchanan said.
Knox County health officials said they’re expecting the area’s COVID-19 numbers to increase for three or four more weeks before it peaks and starts to come down.
Several community members attended the meeting to voice their opinions on the possibility of a mandate, even though the board no longer has the power to create one.
“I will not comply,” said Sherri Garrett, who attended the meeting.
She said that the mask itself is not the issue, but said she refuses to comply with mask restrictions out of personal choice. She also said that she disagrees with mask mandates because they can cause prejudice towards her.
“It does seem like there is instantly a label that gets put on your forehead if you go into any entity, whether it’s a grocery store or the mall or anywhere, and you’re not wearing a mask," she said. "They just automatically label you as an anti-masker and that’s not always necessarily the case."
But Dr. Buchanan asks the public to get vaccinated and wear a mask. Otherwise, she said transmission rates could continue to rise, leading to economic difficulties such as businesses having to shut down once again.
Officials with the City of Knoxville said that people who have not received a vaccine should wear masks in city-owned buildings.
"COVID-19 is not a political problem. COVID-19 is a medical problem and so I think we need to be listening to medical experts on how we manage it and medical expertise is telling us now the COVID-19 vaccine works. Get vaccinated," said Dr. Buchanan.
About 82% of people older than 65 years old have had at least one dose of the vaccine, while only 57% of people older than 12 years old have received a dose.
“If we as a community want to stop responding to the virus, we need to get more people vaccinated," she said. "The vaccine lets us take back control from the virus.”
She said that the situation in Tennessee mirrors what has been seen in several states across the U.S. where rising COVID-19 cases have not yet seen a decrease, according to Dr. James Shamiyeh. Health leaders said the rise is due to the July 4 holiday, more people taking summer vacations, and the delta variant.
Shamiyeh also said that the region's positivity rate was now at 12.4%, a significant increase from the previously reported 1.2% positivity rate. He said he is concerned that the number of cases will continue trending upwards.
Attorney David Sanders also addressed questions about who would have the authority to institute mask mandates and restrictions, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. He said that a recently passed statute gives the health officer of the county the power to issue regulations for people's health.
However, he also said that his office was still working to interpret the full meaning of the statute.
In March, the Knox County Commission voted to transfer the board's regulatory power to the Knox County Health Department. Dr. Martha Buchanan, the director of the department, serves on the board alongside Mayor Glenn Jacobs.
On Monday, he said that he would not issue any new COVID-19 restrictions. Information about whether he actually has the authority to create new restrictions, instead of KCHD or other officials, was not immediately available.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Health created an alcohol curfew to prevent large gatherings at bars and restaurants. They also created a mask mandate requiring people to wear a face-covering inside of public buildings.
The restrictions were met with ire from business owners, elected officials and other community members even as the federal government placed Tennessee in the worst tier of severity for COVID-19 cases — "darkest red."
"At this time, I have some concerns of restrictions' effectiveness, compliance, effects on the economy and the potential negative impact of putting a regulation in place further decreasing a person's willingness to get a vaccine," said Buchanan.
The board met in the small assembly room of the City County Building. Members included Buchanan, Jacobs, health professionals, experts and a citizen representative. They were scheduled to present updates on the spread of COVID-19.
The Knox County Advisory Board of Health is back to its regular quarterly meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for September.