Governors who quickly reopened backpedal as virus surges

A healthcare worker walks past cars with people waiting to be tested at a United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site, Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Houston. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that the state is facing a "massive outbreak" in the coronavirus pandemic and that some new local restrictions may be needed to protect hospital space for new patients. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

After the region set a monthly record for new novel coronavirus infections on Thursday, Northeast Regional Health Office Director Dr. David Kirschke is urging Tennesseans to continue following public health recommendations, saying a failure to do so will only lead to a continued surge in infections. 

“Obviously, people have seen that cases are surging both in Northeast Tennessee and in the state, and I think cases will continue to surge to the extent that we fail to protect ourselves — to do everything we can to protect ourselves and others,” Kirschke said.

“I think it’s more important than ever that people heed social distancing guidance, avoid crowded places, wear cloth face masks in public, wash hands frequently and, obviously, staying home if you’re sick.”  

On Thursday, Northeast Tennessee reported 21 new cases of COVID-19, putting the monthly total at 163 — an increase of 17 over the previous record set in April. An additional 21 cases were reported Friday afternoon, putting the region’s monthly total at 184. 

Asked about the rise, Kirschke said it was “predictable,” but said the rise is still concerning from a public health standpoint. 

“I wouldn’t say surprised, but we are concerned — this is what we’ve been planning for. I think, again, we need to be doing everything we can to protect ourselves and others so that hospitals don’t get overwhelmed and the people with the most risk (of dying) don’t get exposed to coronavirus,” Kirschke said. 

Tennessee, which also set a record for monthly infections this month and saw a record number of active cases on Thursday, is hardly alone in seeing its case count rise.

In response to record increases in Florida and Texas, governors of both states ordered all bars closed and put a pause of their phased reopening plan. Arizona, Arkansas, California and both Carolinas have also reported record increases over the past several days.

Tennessee is among those states that have reported record numbers in the past seven days. 

With cases rising, hospitalizations and deaths are also expected to rise in the days and weeks ahead. As of Friday afternoon, the state has 22% of its intensive care unit beds, 19% of its floor beds and 74% of its ventilators available, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

A spokesman for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said while hospitalizations have increased, only about 5% of those those hospitalized in the state have COVID-19. There are currently 484 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state.

“Hospitalizations typically do lag a week or so behind cases, and it’s really more important than ever for us to make every effort we can to protect ourselves and others so we can kind of shield the people who are most vulnerable from becoming exposed to coronavirus,” Kirschke said.

Gillum Ferguson, Gov. Bill Lee’s press secretary, said the state has added about 460 hospital beds in Nashville and Memphis for low-acuity patients. If hospitals appear to be close to capacity, Ferguson said the state could suspend elective procedures again, though it’s not necessary at this time.

Lee appears willing to let localities handle any outbreaks at this point, rather than shut the state back down again, with Ferguson telling the Tennessean this week the governor “really prefers not to have one-size-fits-all statewide mandates.”

Ferguson told the Press that the state’s Unified Command Group “continues to assess and monitor the COVID case data and will consider additional measures to implement if necessary,” and that they’ve “undertaken a multi-pronged approach to recent, localized increases in COVID cases.”

“Right now, it’s extremely important for Tennesseans to do their part by taking advantage of free, COVID-19 testing available at their county health departments and at other locations, and by wearing masks when in public, observing proper distances between individuals in public, and evaluating whether to engage in certain social or leisure activities,” Ferguson said.

Kirschke, meanwhile, said people need to make every effort to protect themselves and others from the virus, imploring people to wear masks in public, saying “it’s important for people to remember that wearing a mask is something we do to protect other people.”

A study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that only 10% to 20% of Tennesseans regularly wear masks when they leave home.

“We’re seeing a fair number of cases associated with travel, so we would encourage anyone that is planning to travel to be extra careful because there’s lots of hotspots around that people like to travel to,” Kirschke said, “but we are also seeing cases in the community, so I think, really, people need to know that coronavirus is spreading in our communities and if they haven’t been doing it up to this point, they need to make every effort to protect themselves and others from coronavirus.”

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