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Knox County Board of Health meets for first time in 2021; extends alcohol curfew and gathering limit

The Knox County Board of Health met on Wednesday, for the first time in 2021.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — The Knox County Board of Health met on Wednesday, for the first time since the start of 2021. 

They faced continually rising COVID-19 cases and deaths in East Tennessee. A bill in the 112th Tennessee General Assembly also aimed to limit the board's power, giving it to Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. 

Board members voted to extend the alcohol curfew and gathering limit until Feb. 4. Jacobs and Ani Roma voted against the extension and the social gathering limit. Only Jacobs voted against the social gathering limit.

Martha Buchanan emphasized that the health regulations are the same for all restaurants, such as meat temperatures and storage guidelines, and the curfew could be considered similar to those regulations.

Roma said she voted against the regulation because it could place disproportional measures on bars compared to other restaurants, and it could lead people towards mistrust and confusion around the board of health.

Shamiyeh said that he was not comfortable pulling back regulations with the current data but also did not want to create broader restrictions.

They also decided to continue the mask mandate in Knox County. The mandate does not have an expiration date.

"I think everyone's kind of come to terms with mask use," Martha Buchanan said.

The meeting began with a public forum, where members of the Knox County community could speak with members. Kevin Hil, a community member who spoke during the public forum, encouraged the board to condemn threats from the public made to the Knox County Commission in response to efforts to curtail the board's power.

Patrick O'Brien and Maria Hurt said that they condemned threats to the commission, as well as threats that the Board of Health received.

"There's no place for this, and it is to be soundly condemned," Jack Gotcher said.

They voted unanimously to pass a resolution condemning the threat or use of violence against governing officials and said that they are primarily concerned with the safety and welfare of Knox County residents. 

Then, the meeting moved into a presentation from the Knox County Health Department about the community's COVID-19 benchmarks. Director Martha Buchanan said the department received 4,700 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and administered 3,851 doses. That does not include vaccinations from other healthcare providers.

She also said that hospitals and health departments are primary vaccinators, but as more doses are available people will eventually be able to get vaccinated from other places, such as their doctors' offices.

"We're following what the state tells us," Dr. James Shamiyeh said, instead of following federal government guidelines. Those are meant to help state officials make decisions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Buchanan said that cases climbed back up to over 300 new cases per day. She also said that COVID-19 testing remained consistent with more than 10,000 tests conducted per day in Knox County with around a 3 day turnaround time.

She also said that there was a slight downward trend this week in hospitalizations, but the benchmark was still "red." The death rate also fell a little, to around 4 deaths per day.

The Knox County Health Department also said that they reduced their contact tracing efforts as they focused on vaccination efforts, but noted that Knox County Schools continues to conduct contact tracing.

Dr. Shamiyeh also gave a presentation during the meeting. He also urged people to avoid "normalization bias," and to remember that even if cases decrease, COVID-19 can still pose a threat to the East Tennessee community.

He said that hospitals were seeing 2,600 - 2,700 new cases per week.

The Knox County positivity rate has dropped he said, at around 26%. He said when the positivity rate is that high, it can be difficult for officials to predict how the pandemic may affect the community week-to-week.

He said that the number of patients in East Tennessee hospitalized for COVID-19 fell over the holidays, but warned that it could be difficult to accurately explain the drop.

"Reporting around the holidays was spotty, but where we have numbers, we're confident that those numbers are reliable," Shamiyeh said during his presentation.

Hospitals saw a rise in the overall mortalities due to COVID-19 during mid-December, Shamiyeh said.

Lisa Wagoner also gave a presentation about Knox County Schools' response to COVID-19. She said that schools made changes to extracurricular activities, such as social distancing and capacity limits, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They are following TSAA guidance, Wagoner said.