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Governor calls for reopening; drive-thru testing set for May 3 in county

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County prepares to reopen to the new normal as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee calls for the state to begin opening businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee issued the first steps from the “Tennessee Pledge,” the state’s rollout of guidance and best practices for businesses, in 89 of the state’s 95 counties to keep employees and customers safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Lee announced during his Friday, April 24, press conference that the first industries to receive guidance through the plan include the restaurant and retail industries.

“Tennesseans pulled together to flatten the curve, and it is time for people to begin to get back to work and back to their businesses,” Lee said. “We are pursuing a careful, measured approach to reopening our economy that does not depend on heavy-handed mandates but instead provides practical tools for businesses of all sizes.”

Lee underscored that the Tennessee Pledge plan for safe economic recovery is supported by data showing Tennessee’s curve of novel coronavirus infections hitting a plateau. Lee also pointed to the unsettling economic reality COVID-19 has created in the state.

According to a statement released by Lee, Tennessee has seen the average daily growth rate of COVID-19 remain stable for 14 days, in addition to a steady downward trajectory in positive tests as a percentage of total tests since April 1. The state has also had a massive ramp up in testing, including open testing available to all Tennesseans across 33 sites over last weekend, 18 this weekend, and more the next.

On the economic front, 15 percent of Tennessee’s workforce filed unemployment claims as of this week for more than 400,000 people. State officials predict a $5 billion loss in the state’s gross domestic product during 2020.

According to Lee, this plan is the first step in a phased reopening of the state’s economy, which entails rebooting industries as they are safe to pursue in 89 of the state’s 95 counties. The state is working with Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Sullivan on plans to reopen businesses in those counties. Lee added that many Tennesseans are facing not just potential sickness but crippling financial hardship, particularly in the service industries.

Lee also announced that Tennessee restaurants were able to reopen on Monday, April 27, at 50 percent occupancy. Additionally, Tennessee retailers are able to reopen on Wednesday, April 29, at 50 percent occupancy. The state recommends that employees in both industries wear cloth face coverings and that business owners follow federal guidelines for hygiene and workplace sanitation standards related to the pandemic. The full guidance offered by the state for both sectors can be found at tn.gov.

“Like the rest of the country, Tennessee has taken an unprecedented economic hit with families and small businesses feeling the most pain,” Lee said. “We must stay vigilant as a state, continue to practice social distancing, and engage in best practices at our businesses so that we can stay open.”

Lee’s administration assembled the Tennessee Economic Recovery Group, pulling together the state’s departments of tourism, economic development, and revenue, members of the Tennessee General Assembly, and business leaders to safely reboot Tennessee’s economy. The group is chaired by Tennessee Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Mark Ezell.

According to Ezell, the state’s guidelines for restaurants and retail stores were developed in cooperation with business leaders in both sectors, mayors from across the state, and members of the legislature and health experts, as well as Unified Command which includes the Tennessee Department of Health. He added the reopening of future sectors would be accomplished with similar input from industry leaders and elected officials.

“We need Tennessee businesses, workers, and consumers to step up and pledge to follow these guidelines,” Ezell said. “It is critically important that we maintain our commitment to social distancing and adhere to these new guidelines so that we can continue to reopen our economy.”

State Testing

According to Lee, more than 7,000 Tennesseans received free COVID-19 tests, regardless of symptoms, during the Unified-Command Group’s second weekend of expanded testing efforts at 18 sites across the state.

“We expanded testing availability to any Tennessean who believes they need a test because testing remains one of our most important tools in tracking and mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” said Gov. Lee. “We’re grateful to the thousands of Tennesseans who came out to get tested, and we’re incredibly thankful for the efforts of our Department of Health and National Guard personnel for making these testing sites a reality.”

Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee National Guard personnel tested 4,247 individuals on Saturday at 10 sites across all three grand divisions. Two metropolitan areas, Hamilton and Shelby counties, were added from the previous weekend with the Hamilton site operating Saturday and Sunday.

Eight sites were operational on Sunday with 2,856 individuals tested. On both days lanes at certain sites were opened early to accommodate large lines and some sites offered “walk-up” testing to alleviate potential delays.

“We’re pleased with the number of Tennesseans who came out to get tested, and our capacity could have handled twice as many tests if needed,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. “As Tennesseans begin the process of returning to work, we strongly encourage them to take advantage of these opportunities to get a test and help us mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Unified-Command will continue expanded testing throughout the weekend of May 2-3.  An updated list of available sites will be posted on the Department of Health’s website. All rural county health departments across the state offer free COVID-19 testing five days a week, in addition to drive-through sites.

A joint partnership between the Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Department of Military and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), Unified-Command was established on March 23 by Lee and serves as the state’s coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Regionally, Greene County tested 382 people on April 25 and Hawkins County tested 172 people on April 26. Washington County had tested 829 people and Hawkins County had tested 470 people the prior week during the Unified-Command Group’s drive-thru testing drive.

Unicoi County has been providing COVID-19 testing through the Tennessee Department of Health at the Unicoi County Health Department during normal business hours.

The Tennessee Department of Health is providing free drive-thru COVID-19 testing at Unicoi County High School on Sunday, May 3, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. This event is free and does not require an appointment or pre-registration.

“Anyone with health concerns, or who has concerns about the health of a family member, is invited to come to one of these locations this weekend to receive testing for COVID-19,” Tennessee Department of Health Northeast Regional Director Rebekah English said. “This testing will be provided at no cost to participants, and those who come for testing can remain in their vehicles throughout the process.”

If you have any questions or concerns you can call the Northeast Region’s Coronavirus Public Information Line, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. at 979-4689.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 957,875 positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 53,922 deaths reported as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline on Tuesday, April 28.

Also, there have been 9,918 positive cases of COVID-19 and 184 deaths as a result of the virus in the State of Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The deaths from COVID-19 in the State of Tennessee amount to two percent of the total positive cases in the state.

Of the positive cases, roughly 4,720, or 48 percent, of the positive cases have recovered.

According to tn.gov/health, recovered is defined as people who have been confirmed to be asymptomatic by their local or regional health department and have completed their required isolation period or are at least 21 days beyond the first test confirming their illness.

Roughly 8 percent of COVID-19 positive patients in Tennessee were hospitalized.

Unicoi County is still currently reporting one positive case of COVID-19 and that person has recovered.

Washington County has had 54 cases with 46 of those cases being classified as recovered. Sullivan County has had 47 total cases of which 41 are considered recovered and one reported death. Greene County has had 41 total cases with 27 recoveries and two deaths. Hawkins County has had 29 total cases with 26 recoveries and two deaths. Carter County has had 12 total cases with six recoveries and one death, while Johnson County is reporting three total cases with two individuals who have recovered.

For more information, including up-to-date statistics, please visit cdc.gov and tn.gov/health.

To find out the latest information regarding COVID-19 and Unicoi County, please visit unicoicountystrong.com.