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Caution is urged in re-opening the local economy

Robert Houk • Apr 23, 2020 at 9:30 AM

Local public health officials said Wednesday caution must be exercised in re-opening businesses closed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While the number of COVID-19 cases locally haven’t met projections, they say relaxing social distancing and other precautions could result in a deadly spike of the virus in the region. 

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Dr. David Kirschke, the medical director of the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department, told Washington County commissioners during their weekly electronic COVID-19 update. “You might say we are just getting into the woods.”

Kirschke said it’s not as simple as flipping a switch to reboot the economy, noting it’s more like turning up a dimmer switch. He said the key will be to re-open the economy in phases, which will “effect the trajectory” of new COVID-19 cases and possible deaths.

He said resuming business activity “does not mean everything is going back to normal.” Kirschke said the “virus is still out there,” and health officials “still recommend that people who are at high risk stay at home.”

The doctor said relaxing social distancing requirements too early could also place patients in nursing homes, the homeless population and inmates in jails at an added risk for contracting the virus.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy told commissioners that Gov. Bill Lee has decided this week to not extend his safer-at home order, and plans to begin re-opening the state’s economy. He said the governor is expected “to give more direction on Friday” as to the businesses he would like to see open their doors first. 

Grandy said he has also assembled a task force of business leaders and public health officials to provide him guidance on “how to safely and responsibly” re-open businesses in phases.

Commissioners also heard from Eric Deaton, chief operations officer of Ballad Health, who said his system has as many as 245 ventilators and and 385 beds available to treat COVID-19 cases. He said Ballad has been seeing fewer than five new cases daily in recent weeks.

He said those numbers have been “leveling off” as a result of area residents following stay-at-home directives. Deaton said Ballad is currently treating 16 “in-house” patients at its facilities, which is lower than the number that had been projected by various models.

Deaton, who serves as a member to the governor’s economic recovery group, said there is talk of resuming surgeries and other medical procedures put on hold by the pandemic.

“We are still advocating social distancing and a hold on large public gatherings,” he said.

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