By Richard Rourk
As things slowly begin to settle into a new normal, mass testing for COVID-19 continues in Tennessee.
Unicoi County joined a long list of counties that have provided free drive-thru COVID-19 tests to any Tennessee resident as COVID-19 rapid testing was held on Sunday, May 3, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Unicoi County High School.
“Anyone with health concerns, or who has concerns about the health of a family member, was invited to come to one of these locations this past weekend to receive testing for COVID-19,” Tennessee Department of Health Northeast Regional Director Rebekah English said. “This testing was provided at no cost to participants, and those who came for testing were able to remain in their vehicles throughout the process.”
According to Tennessee Department of Health Council Coordinator Jayne Harper, more than 200 citizens received COVID-19 testing.
“There were a total of 237 tests done at Unicoi High School,” Harper said.
On Monday, May 4, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that more than 23,000 Tennesseans have received a free COVID-19 test at 67 drive-thru sites over the past three weekends as part of Unified-Command Group’s efforts to reduce barriers and widen access to testing for all Tennesseans regardless of symptoms.
“Testing remains one of the most important tools for gaining more information in our fight against COVID-19, and the 23,000 tests we’ve completed over the last three weekends have provided incredibly valuable data,” Lee said. “We’re grateful to the thousands who came out to receive a test this weekend and we continue to remind Tennesseans: when in doubt, get a test.”
Soldiers and airmen from the Tennessee National Guard supported Tennessee Department of Health personnel at 16 sites across the state, including Unicoi County, on May 2 and 3 where 5,153 Tennesseans received a free COVID-19 test. Eight sites were operated on Saturday with 2,733 individuals tested and another eight sites on Sunday with 2,420 individuals tested. Hamilton county-operated their site both days and tested 1,168 individuals for COVID-19 representing nearly a third of the weekend total.
Carter County also tested 295 individuals on May 2.
“Our weekend sites have been equipped to meet the demand for free testing across the state,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said. “With ample capacity at our county health departments during the week, we continue to encourage Tennesseans to take advantage of free testing at these locations.”
Unified-Command Group, led by Director Stuart McWhorter, is a partnership between Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) Director Patrick Sheehan.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,152,372 positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 67,456 deaths reported as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline on Tuesday, May 5.
Also, there have been 13,571 positive cases of COVID-19 and 219 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 amount to two percent of the total positive cases in the state.
Of the positive cases, roughly 6,081, or 45 percent, of the positive cases have recovered.
There have been 211,443 COVID-19 tests that have been administered by the Tennessee Department of Health.
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 13 percent of COVID-19 positive patients in Tennessee were hospitalized.
Unicoi County is reporting two positive cases of COVID-19 with one person listed as recovered.
In Northeast Tennessee, Washington County has had 57 cases with 50 of those cases being classified as recovered. Sullivan County has had 57 total cases of which 47 are considered recovered and one reported death. Greene County has had 43 total cases with 35 recoveries and two deaths. Hawkins County has had 31 total cases with 27 recoveries and two deaths. Carter County has had 14 total cases with 10 recoveries and one death, while Johnson County is reporting five total cases with three 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.
As the state continues to open in phases, the Tennessee’s Economic Recovery Group released guidance for close contact services, enabling more than 38,000 workers to resume business in 89 of the state’s 95 counties on May 6. Six counties: Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan, will create individual plans in consultation with their locally-run health departments.
“As we continue a measured reopening of the economy, it’s critical we provide evidence-based guidance to businesses so they can keep their employees and customers safe,” Lee said. “The very nature of close contact businesses calls for strong solutions and we’re inspired by the willingness of these small business owners to take the Tennessee Pledge. These guidelines will allow thousands of businesses to reopen, put their employees back to work, and serve customers in a thoughtful and safe manner.”
In addition to the recommendations included within the Tennessee Pledge, the state recommends strict adherence to CDC guidelines. The state’s guidance applies to personal services including barber shops, hair salons, waxing salons, nail spas, massage therapy services and substantially similar businesses that require prolonged close contact with customers.
The full guidelines are posted online at TNPledge.com and includes: limiting capacity to 50 percent of the fire code regulations, accepting appointments and avoiding walk-ins, making sure that work stations are six feet apart and that proper sanitation items are available and deep cleaning of the work area.
On Friday, May 1, Lee announced Faith-Based and Community Initiatives released guidance for faith communities on gathering together in houses of worship.
“Tennessee’s faith leaders have been incredibly innovative in finding alternative ways to worship that incorporate social distancing so they can continue to provide spiritual guidance, fellowship, and service to their neighbors during these challenging times,” Lee said. “Religious liberty is important and must be protected, and that’s why the state has always deemed religious services as essential gatherings throughout this pandemic. As we look to reopen our economy in a safe fashion, the decision on in-person gatherings will be up to each individual faith community. We’re confident in their ability to determine the proper time and how to incorporate these guidelines to worship in a way that protects the health of their congregation.”
Along with places of worship reopening, concerns about COVID-19 at other facilities such as jails and prisons are on the forefront of Lee’s plan, according to information released by his administration.
The Unified Command Group (UCG) announced on Friday, May 1, that a mass COVID-19 testing initiative will begin next week for all Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) staff and the inmates in their care.
“Knowing the extent of the virus’s spread within our correctional facilities is critical as incarcerated individuals remain one of the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic,” Lee said. “Thanks to our increased capacity, we’ll test all inmates and staff statewide in order to take appropriate actions to safeguard the health of these vulnerable individuals.”
On May 1, TDOC confirmed more than 1,246 COVID-19 positive cases, out of 2,450 total tests, among staff and inmates at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Trousdale County, following a targeted testing event at the facility that began on April 28.
“We’ve been in close coordination with TDOC as it began targeted COVID-19 testing of inmates and staff in early April,” McWhorter said. “Given the increases in positive cases at the Bledsoe County and Trousdale Turner correctional facilities, despite the vast majority being asymptomatic, we are going to take the next steps in partnership with TDOC, Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), and Tennessee National Guard to support a broader testing strategy to promote the health and safety of staff and inmates. We will also coordinate plans with our local jails to assist them in safeguarding the health of their populations in the coming days.”
TDOC and TDH analysis of the test results confirm 98 percent of those who tested positive are asymptomatic, according to the state. TDOC is now working with its healthcare services provider and contract prison provider, Centurion Managed Care and CoreCivic, to begin COVID-19 testing next week of all staff and inmates at 10 other TDOC correctional facilities in the state.
While CoreCivic will be responsible for testing all inmates and staff in its managed facilities, UCG will coordinate with the Tennessee National Guard to augment testing capacity for staff at state-run facilities, where Centurion will be testing only inmates.
“The Department of Correction is taking a proactive approach to ensure all staff and the entire inmate population is tested for COVID-19,” TDOC Commissioner Tony Parker said. “Our sixth round of mass testing will begin early next week with the remaining 10 facilities conducting testing. With the support and leadership of Governor Lee, Tennessee is leading the nation in our approach to widespread mass testing.”
According to Tennessee’s Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, the Department of Military has been working closely with TDOC for weeks on preparedness for various courses of action as situations develop.
“This plan is entering an implementation phase and we are prepared to support this mission, Holmes said.”
The statewide mass testing initiative also follows additional, targeted facility testing TDOC conducted at the Bledsoe County and Northwest Correctional Complexes on April 10, and at the Turney Center Industrial Complex on April 19.
COVID-19 testing at the Bledsoe facility indicated 583 positive staff and inmate cases, among 2,322 tested; 40 positive cases out of 902 staff and inmates tested at Northwest; and 40 positive cases out of 313 staff and inmates tested at Turney Center, according ot the state.
As with the Trousdale Turner results, the vast majority of individuals’ positive test results at the other three TDOC facilities were asymptomatic.
TDOC immediately follows positive COVID-19 tests with contact tracing for potential exposure, state officials reported. All inmates who test positive and are asymptomatic receive daily medical monitoring and health assessments. Inmates who are asymptomatic will be monitored at their facilities while medical teams check daily for symptoms.
Those who may become symptomatic but don’t require additional care, such as respiratory support, will be treated in place or at local hospitals, depending on their needs. Staff will self-quarantine and are monitored for symptoms and are encouraged to contact their healthcare provider.
TDOC has reportedly delivered more than 93,000 masks for staff, inmates, county jails, and health care workers. COVID-19 disinfection and safety measures are ongoing at all TDOC facilities and TDOC is practicing recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and TDH.