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Johnson City Schools sees rise in COVID-19 cases

Since spring break, 49 students in the Johnson City Schools system have tested positive for COVID-19.

System officials have seen a recent uptick in cases over the past few weeks, which they attribute to a combination of factors.

Greg Wallace, the supervisor of safety at the school system, said school officials started noticing the increase the second week after spring break. He said the rise in cases has mirrored trends in the community.

“That’s always been the case in the schools,” Wallace said. “As the community’s numbers go up, certainly the school numbers go up.”

Ballad Health recently reported that it had hit 100 hospitalizations of patients with the disease across its facilities for the first time in two months. The seven-day average of new cases of the virus in Northeast Tennessee also increased from 65.2 on March 8 to 108.8 on April 5. The number of new cases in the region reached their peak in December, hitting a seven-day average of above 600 for about a week.

According to its online COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, 236 students across Johnson City’s system are in quarantine, which means they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. A total of 25 students are in isolation, which means they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

Both of these figures are currently several times higher than they were on March 15, when the system returned from spring break. At that time, 40 students were in quarantine and four were in isolation.

After operating for a while on a hybrid schedule with students physically at school on alternating days, Science Hill High School and Liberty Bell Middle School returned to full in-person learning on March 15. All schools are now back to in-person instruction.

Wallace noted that this means more students can be exposed to COVID-19 if a peer in their classroom contracts the virus, which affects the number of students in quarantine.

Plus, he said, people are starting to get fatigued with COVID-19 precautions.

“We’re all tired of masks, and it’s been over a year,” Wallace said. “We just continue to remind folks that we want to finish strong. We want to continue to follow the guidance of the local health department.”

Travel could also have been a factor, he notes.

Johnson City’s spring break lasted a full week this year — from March 8 to 12 — but Wallace indicated the impact of the time off is unclear.

He reiterated that the return of full in-person learning, which boosted the number of students in schools, and the increase in cases in the community have likely been the biggest factors.

Wallace said the school system’s mitigation strategies have remained largely the same. The system still requires masks, restricts visitation and encourages social distancing as much as possible.

Many Johnson City schools also keep student cohorts together as much as possible and use consistent seating charts to make it easier to identify kids who have been exposed to COVID.

As part of its efforts to limit spread on campus, East Tennessee State University is operating in a “modified stage two” plan during its spring semester.

A fact sheet provided by the university says precautions include conducting more than 80 percent of instruction remotely using D2L and Zoom. Residence halls also have reduced density, and indoor meetings larger than 15 people that aren’t associated with academic coursework are prohibited.

This year, ETSU broke its spring break into three mini-breaks: Feb. 18-19, March 15-16 and April 14. The university said this change is intended to reduce travel and potential spread of the virus.

The university’s COVID-19 dashboard said Tuesday that there are 13 active cases on and off campus. Since September, 711 ETSU faculty and students have recovered from COVID-19.

“As indicated on our COVID-19 Dashboard, these measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus have helped to keep our numbers low,” ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said in a statement. “We are extremely grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for wearing masks, social distancing, and remaining committed to keep one another safe during this time.”

Demonstrators gather in support of former ETSU Coach Jason Shay

Demonstrators lined State of Franklin Road Tuesday afternoon in support of East Tennessee State University’s men’s basketball team, as well as former basketball coach Jason Shay, who resigned amid controversy surrounding the team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem ahead of several games this season.

“It initially started in support of Coach Shay, and how things were handled with him,” Washington County/Johnson City NAACP President Tavia Sillmon said of the demonstration. “Now, we’re supporting the team. Several players have changed where they want to play, and we still want people to come here — this is still a great area in spite of what we’ve shown people. We need to change that.”

The demonstration was held in response to Shay’s sudden resignation last week amid a flurry of controversy due to the team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice. Many believed Shay was forced out due to his support of his players’ decision to kneel, though the university has maintained it did not fire or force Shay to resign.

Katelyn Yarbrough, chair of the New Generation Freedom Fighters, said they hoped to show everyone that the community supports the players and their right to kneel, calling out businesses that have threatened to pull money from the university, as well as groups that have not supported the players’ protest.

“This is to let them know that we don’t support that,” Yarbrough said. “We support the kneeling Bucs.”

Sillmon, meanwhile, said the situation is a microcosm of what’s going on in the nation.

“I hope they realize that Johnson City is not just about what it used to be hundreds of years ago, that it is diverse, it is inclusive and that we’re asking just to be respected — just to be treated like everyone else, and we want awareness in every area,” Sillmon said of the university’s administration. “I’m hoping the university will see, ‘hey this is still going on, that even though we made that move they’re still doing this and maybe there are some things that we need to look at and change as well.’ “

Sillmon also said she hopes to see newly hired Desmond Oliver, ETSU’s first African American head basketball coach, support the players if they decide to kneel again next season.

“I’m very supportive of Coach Oliver. First of all, congratulations on getting the position that he probably wouldn’t have gotten in other circumstances,” Sillmon said. “I’m hoping he can do what he was sent here to do and bring change and awareness and teach young men, but we all know why it was done and we’re expecting him to do the right thing as well — we’re expecting him to support the players. He’s going to have to, as well as the university, if we want to grow.”

Yarbrough said the hiring of an African American coach doesn’t erase their concerns.

“We weren’t asking for a Black coach,” Yarbrough said. “We want the systemic racism to stop and the corruption with the money — just because you want to donate funds and sponsor the college and the athletics department doesn’t mean that you get to impress your beliefs on everyone and silence and stomp on someone else’s rights.”

Northeast Tennessee's seven-day positivity rate continues to rise; three new deaths reported

Northeast Tennessee’s seven-day COVID-19 test positivity rate continued its rise on Tuesday, nearing the 14% mark for the first time since late January.

As of Tuesday, the region’s seven-day positive test rate — the percentage of tests that are positive — was 13.93%, the highest rate reported since Jan. 22, when it was 14.52%. And while the number of tests reported in the past seven days is nearly identical to the number reported in the previous week, testing has declined in recent days.

Since Friday, the region has reported 2,806 total tests compared to 3,595 in the previous five days — a drop of 28.2% — though the number of positive tests has been nearly unchanged (432 to 430), leading to an increase in the region’s positivity rate. Tuesday’s daily positivity rate of 21.8% was also the highest reported since March 26 (22.63%), and is only the fourth time the daily positivity rate has topped 20% since January.

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Region adds three more virus-related fatalities

Three more Northeast Tennesseans were reported dead due to the virus on Tuesday, just the fifth time more than two deaths have been reported in a single day since March 1. The fatalities were reported in Hawkins (1) and Sullivan (2) counties.

Tuesday’s death toll brought the total number of deaths reported in Northeast Tennessee to 1,033, though new reported deaths have not topped 10 in a single week since the end of February. Last week there was a net total of five new reported deaths in the region, the fewest in a single week since last summer.

There were, however, nine new hospitalizations reported, the most since Feb. 17. Unlike deaths, weekly hospitalizations have been rising since mid-March, though they declined slightly last week.

Active cases top 1,300

Northeast Tennessee had just over 1,300 active infections as of Tuesday, the most reported since Feb. 11. The total is an increase of 21 from Monday, and follows a four-day period to start the month where active cases only increased by 19.

Sullivan (474) and Washington (396) counties have a large portion of the region’s active infections, though Carter (127), Greene (140) and Hawkins (107) each have more than 100. Hawkins County (-4) was the region’s only county to report a decline in active infections on Tuesday.

COVID-19: Interactive charts and graphs