KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — The Knox County Board of Health met for its biweekly meeting on Wednesday after the Knox County Health Department said that 975 Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines were accidentally discarded earlier in the day.
During the meeting, they voted to extend the 11 p.m. alcohol curfew to March 4, 7-1. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs voted against the extension.
They also voted to extend the social gathering limit, 7-1. Mayor Jacobs voted against the extension. Both were originally set to expire on Feb. 18.
The meeting began with a public forum when members of the community could speak directly with the board. The first speaker, a Knox County teacher, asked the board to continue to mask mandate and to advocate for teachers. She said that educators are not following safety guidelines enough to safely reopen schools.
Lisa Wagoner, with Knox County Schools, said that masks are required in schools and encouraged people to notify administrators if they see people not wearing masks at schools.
During the forum, Dr. Martha Buchanan also addressed cycle threshold concerns brought up during the forum. She said that the test is a qualitative test, instead of a quantitative, and to use the test in any other way than they currently are would be a violation of its emergency use authorization.
Patrick O'Brien also said that he was against fining citizens because of the mask mandate. He also said that he received two subpoenas requiring his attendance at hearings for bars found to be in violation of safety guidelines.
Community Benchmarks and COVID-19 Data
Buchanan also gave a presentation about Knox County's COVID-19 benchmarks. She mentioned that the health department launched a new COVID-19 vaccine waitlist system Wednesday morning, and said that the program includes a stand-by list of people who can be called if another person misses their appointment.
In total, she said that there were around 56,000 people vaccinated for COVID-19 in Knox County.
Buchanan also said that the sustained reduction in new cases benchmark was still at "yellow." The number of new cases per 100,000 was still higher than health leaders wanted, despite falling numbers.
The COVID-19 testing benchmark also remained at "yellow," but Buchanan said the volume of tests was lower than late last year. The turnaround time for CVOID-19 tests was less the two days, she said.
The public health capability benchmark was still being restructured, Buchanan said.
The benchmark for hospital capacity remained "yellow," and the death rate for COVID-19 remained at "red." Buchanan said there has been an average of 5 deaths per day due to COVID-19.
"At our current caseload, we're able to talk to our cases almost every day," Buchanan said. "We allow cases to identify their contacts and inform them. What would be required for us to take on contact tracing again is for the vaccine to be more widely available."
Dr. James Shamiyeh also presented about how hospitals in East Tennessee were handling COVID-19 cases. He said that the number of new cases has been flat in the county and in East Tennessee, compared to the drop since the earlier spike.
He said that the number of cases in almost every age group has also leveled off — cases are being reported evenly across many demographics. He said that as of Tuesday, the 7-day positivity rate in Knox County was 15.34% and that dropping it to below 10% was attainable.
Shamiyeh said that the hospitals did not test for COVID-19 variants, just whether they have the coronavirus. He also warned to watch non-coronavirus hospitalizations.
He said that since many people may have deferred treatment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, their conditions may have worsened and hospitals will need to still care for them.
Questions for Educational Institutions
Dr. Spencer Duncan Gregg, with the University of Tennessee, said that he was satisfied with UT's testing rates and that the university held its first vaccine event. Two more events are planned for Thursday and Friday.
Wagoner and Buchanan also specified that antibody testing would not be helpful when it comes to reopening schools, since it's better used as a surveillance tool. It is not used to determine if a person has an immunity to COVID-19.
"It's just not a useful tool for those decisions," said Charity Menefee with the Knox County Health Department.
Review and Discussion of Regulations
"With our risk of having the variants, which are more contagious than the primary one in Knox County ... it is not the time to stop the mask mandate," Buchanan said. "I'm sure that if we take masking away, those numbers will not level off, and they certainly won't go down."
She also said that she read information from the CDC urging health leaders to continue instructing people to wear masks. She also said that the health department has given out more than 400,000 masks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shamiyeh also said that removing the masks would invite more cases, even without COVID-19 variants.
They decided to allow the mask mandate to continue in Knox County.
Shamiyeh also moved to continue to 11 p.m. alcohol curfew to March 4. It passed 7-1, with Mayor Jacobs voting against it. He also said that it was important to extend the social gathering limit, due to the message that it sends to practice social distancing.
"I think people were really careful around the holidays," he said. "I'm not sensing that is as much the case now. We need to send the message that this is still an important time for us to buckle down, or else it could go in the other direction."
Mayor Jacobs said that a single mother called his office about difficulties taking her children to the doctor's office since only a limited number of people could enter the office at once. She would have to leave her children outside if just one of them needed to see the doctor.
"It just has to do with probability as we know it," Shamiyeh said. "All I can say from our standpoint, obviously I don't have a solution for that particular problem, is that we're actively talking about visitation and is there a point in time when it starts to open back up."
Buchanan also spoke about an incident when 975 Pfizer vaccines were accidentally disposed of. She said that the vaccines looked to be packed in the same box as dry ice used to keep the vaccine cold.
"We were the ones who noticed it, not Pfizer or the state," she said.
She said that the Knox County Health Department was looking at changing its policies and guidelines to make sure the incident isn't repeated. Buchanan said that she was proud of her team for coming forward and informing the community about the incident.
She also mentioned that Governor Bill Lee's Executive Order giving county mayors the authority to issue mask mandates may expire soon, and encouraged legal counsel to examine how it could impact the Board of Health.