COVID-19: 3/30/2020 Update (Including Today’s Health Department Update)

Scenes from Downtown During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Knoxville, March 2020

It’s been a sobering weekend for anyone seriously tracking the virus. I hope you were able to get some sunshine, take some long breaks from the news and otherwise try to keep yourself mentally healthy. I am going for long walks when possible and I’ll share some of the photographs I take. This weekend also brought the Second Bell Sofa Soiree which was a great success, raising money for local musicians and businesses.The links are still available for donations and are posted on the site linked above. Plans are afoot to post the footage in case you missed the concert. Kudos to Rusty Odom and Blank Newspaper for putting it all together.

International News: 

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 grew by about 50% world-wide over the weekend to about 750,000. Deaths increased by about 40% to over 35,000. At that rate, the mortality rate would roughly double every two days. Italy continues to lead the world in deaths, with about 11,000, which reflects about a 25% increase over the weekend. The number of deaths for Italy and Spain are staggering when seen through the lens of deaths per million, which are 178 and 146 respectively. As a comparison, the U.S. currently has a death rate of 4 per million, though we are earlier in our curve.

World Cases and Deaths

National News:

It’s hard to know where to start. We’ve increasingly gotten news from around the world (Prince Charles, Boris Johnson, Placido Domingo) and the country (Rand Paul, Kevin Durant) and others have the virus. We’re hearing large numbers of the NYPD and medical professionals across the country are getting the virus. Announcements of the deaths of some well-known people are now forthcoming, with news this weekend that country singer Joe Diffe (61) and CBS News Producer Maria Mercader (54). We all have different connections to various singers, actors, artists, politicians and celebrities in general, but the one that hit me the hardest this weekend was word that John Prine is critically ill with COVID-19.

The numbers in the U.S. continue to explode. Last week the U.S. became the world’s largest center for infections. Over the weekend, confirmed cases crossed 100,000 and increased about 80% from Friday’s mid-day number to about 145,000. Deaths have more than doubled since mid-day Friday, going from over 1300 deaths to about 2700 at midday today. Put another way, the U.S. took two months to go from one case to one thousand cases. The next thousand took two days.

The president continues to hold daily briefings. The sentient details to be announced this weekend included a travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, asking that residents there refrain from traveling outside their states for the next fourteen days. New York continues to lead the country in confirmed cases, with over 60,000, meaning it currently has over half the cases in the U.S. For perspective, if New York was a country, it would rank seventh in the world. New Jersey is just behind it with close to 14,000 cases, while Connecticut ranks 14th out of the 50 states.

Also coming out of the White House briefings this weekend was news that the social distancing request will continue through April 30, which is a wild swing from last week when President Trump suggested strongly that we may be on the verge of filling churches by Easter (April 12). It appears that his medical team convinced him the curve we are facing looks very grim.

That was most clearly illustrated by his apparent acceptance of data suggesting we could see 100,000 to 200,000 deaths from the virus and stating that if we hit the low end of that, we will have done a “very good job.” It was a shocking statement to hear a number that large cited as a positive outcome. It is also jarring coming from a leader who said on February 26, that in a matter of days we would be “close to zero.

U.S. Cases as of March 30,2020

State and Local:

As of mid-day today, the state of Tennessee has crossed 1800 confirmed cases of COVID-19. This represents almost double the cases from last Thursday (the numbers I last used). There have now been ten confirmed deaths across the state. Memphis has become a new hotspot in the state, with Shelby County reported more positive tests than Davidson County (Nashville). The biggest news of the weekend came out of Sumner County where a single nursing home has produced 115 positive tests among residents and staff. Two have died.

Knox County Health Department’s tracking site acknowledges 57 cases in the county, which is almost twice the number since Friday. Of those, 17 have recovered and 8 have been hospitalized. There is no indication of deaths on the site. In a briefing by Children’s Hospital this weekend it was stated that that hospital had no patients at that time that were confirmed positive for COVID-19.

For great local coverage of the pandemic, please read Compass and subscribe, if you can (COVID-19 coverage is free). They are doing a great job of local coverage and deserve to be supported.

Health Department Briefing (3/30/2020, 12:30 PM)

Dr. Buchanan stressed that it takes time to see the results of social distancing, with the goal to slow the spread, not to stop it. They are working with businesses and are getting fewer complaints from the public have lessened, which makes her think compliance is good. She noted that the Health Department has partnered with other agencies. KEMA and others have worked to coordinate a response. She noted that this is not simply a health event, but also an economic event and that many may be struggling economically.

She stressed safely staying in contact with others and taking a break from coverage and texting T-N to 741741 for help locally. She said she has not been told there have been more suicides since the group last week.

One person died from the virus over the weekend. No further details were given other than they were a member of a high risk population and did get the virus through community spread. Asked about the April 30 date currently in place nationally, versus a statement made by Mayor Jacobs that it was hoped businesses locally would be open sooner. She said they will use data to make that decision and that she has power to close businesses, but they are working together.

She said they are continuing to do contact tracing even though it is more difficult with the larger number. She said they are working seven days a week and have mobilized personnel to help with non-medical jobs to free up more time for work that requires medical expertise. Asked about county-wide hotspots, she said they have not done mapping specifically, but they have not seen clusters anecdotally.

She reported that the county has begun receiving additional supplies and those are being distributed. She said there is a plan should there be an issue like that at the nursing home in Sumner County and additional resources would be made available. She confirmed there has been one case in an assisted living facility.

RCN Adapts to COVID-19 and Offers Help to Schools and Hospitals

RCN Technologies, 200 Jennings Avenue, Knoxville, August 2019

Just a few months ago, I wrote about a local technology company that moved its headquarters to near downtown at 200 Jennings Avenue. RCN moved from West Knoxville in order to attract the talent it needed to successfully grow its business. They moved into a beautiful ninety-plus-year-old building with a specially designed interior that reflected the team approach the company takes.

As Geoff Yearack, who co-owns the business with his wife, Jennifer Yearack, explained to me then, the company focuses on managed service practice (managing all technology for companies) and Internet Failover or Internet Continuity, keeping companies operating when they have internet outages. They do not manufacture devices, but work with manufacturers to insert their own programming, or as Geoff puts it, “We add the human element. We tell the hardware what to do and then manage it.”

Geoff and Jennifer Yearack, RCN Technologies, 200 Jennings Avenue, Knoxville, August 2019

Given the recent turn of events with COVID-19 shutting down many businesses and disrupting others, it’s interesting to remember that Geoff told me in that original article that one of the priorities when deciding what kind of business he wanted to start was finding a business that would be recession-proof. He’d experienced owning an economy-dependent business before and wanted to avoid a repeat.

He felt this technology service would be in demand regardless. In the case of a very successful economy, not enough technology employees would be available for every company and they’d have to source this service out to companies like his. In a downturn, it’s cheaper to hire a company for a service rather than add employees to a payroll. He might not have imagined that his model would be tested so soon.

Working From Home Montage

I spoke to Reed Perryman, Director of Public Sales at RCN, to see how the company has adapted. Ben Moser, Director of Marketing, provided the photographs, and Jill Williams, Digital Marketing and PR Intern, made the arrangements for our phone interview. Reed said the company is now functioning completely via working-at-home. They were ending their second week of remote working and had just expanded it for two more weeks.

“Mission critical systems are all online-based,” he explained, which made the move pretty seamless with support from RCN techlabs. Essentially, using company computers, the group can function much the same as if they are present in the building. Tech support can assume control of any computer having issues. Most critically, the many police departments and banks that use their services around the country have seen no interruptions in their functionality or security.

Social Distancing Happy Hour

Reed has a brother who works in the food industry and says he has a lot of sympathy for those who can’t work remotely. He is grateful that he and his employees have been able to do so. He pointed out that they have employees in other cities around the country including Madison, Wisconsin, Boise, Idaho, Modesto, California and Dallas, Texas, and they work remotely every week, so there was a precedent and plenty of experience.

He did note the importance of the company culture they’ve established, with their open design, beer taps for employees, and weekly town hall meetings. Reed said the biggest sense of loss with the current arrangement is that the employees genuinely miss each other and the in-office work atmosphere. “We really do feel like family and we enjoy working together.”

To counter some of the isolation, they’ve set up Monday morning coffee talks via Microsoft Teams in which they each get their coffee, connect remotely, and talk about their weekends and plans for the week. “It makes us realize how much we take video conferencing for granted.” On Friday afternoons they have a Social Distancing Happy Hour via video.

Installing a Kit

While they have experienced some of the Internet slowdowns due to the extreme usage produced by so many people streaming heavily during the crisis, he said the public recognition of wired Internet limitations is a positive for the company, which specializes in cellular connectivity that is generally more reliable. For companies impacted negatively by the slowdown in Internet speed, RCN has solutions.

Two arenas in which connectivity has become an issue during the current crisis, educational and medical systems, provide the company with an opportunity to offer solutions. As one of the few companies in the region focused on cellular embedded technologies, they’ve already been involved in filling the sorts of needs that are now emerging on a national scale.

School systems across the country, and here in Knox County, are struggling with the migration to online education. Equity is a major issue for online instruction, as not every child has Internet access in their home. RCN has already partnered with a number of school systems in Georgia and Kansas and other places in the past to install mobile routers on buses, allowing Wi-Fi access to the neighborhoods where the buses are dispatched.

Installing a Kit

Bus Loaded and Rolling with Network Kit

The solution doesn’t require being on the bus, only being in the proximity of the bus, which is perfectly suited for our current challenges. The group has been working hard at putting together the “Rolling Wi-Fi Center Kit,” which is a quick installation solution. The systems are filtered to be compliant with school guidelines and are CIPPA compliant. They have likely reached out to Knox County Schools by the time you are reading this article. It might resolve some of the hesitance the school system has expressed regarding going to online instruction.

The implications for the healthcare field are obvious. As mobile hospitals and mobile test centers are being established, they will need more than the equipment about which we are currently hearing so much. They will also need reliable Internet service. It’s another way that RCN is positioned to meet very specific needs during the pandemic.

They took inventory of all the equipment they had in stock and are preparing to offer it on loan to local agencies until this passes. They’ve also realocated a portion of their website to COVID-19 support. “Geoff and Jen have always had a vision of partnering with and being an ally of the local community. Our motto has been ‘Proud to serve with those who serve’. When this escalated, we felt we were uniquely positioned to help.”

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