The meeting began with Dr. Buchanan sharing current information regarding, vaccinations, the current statistics and benchmarks. I covered the first two in my previous article. She said that Knox County leads the other metro areas in first vaccinations administered. We are averaging 91 cases per day over the last two weeks and 67 new cases per day over the last week. The benchmark for cases has been changed to green, though she stressed they remain concerned.
Testing levels have continued to trail downward. Lab turnaround time is a day and a half and the testing benchmark will remain yellow. Regarding public health capacity, the benchmark now considers community vaccine distribution. Vaccinations dropped over the past week and the benchmark will be yellow. Hospital capacity is improving and that benchmark was changed to green. 27 deaths were reported this period, down from 32 the previous period. It is trending in the right direction, but the metric for deaths will remain yellow.
She explained all the variables that went into the selection of the Food City property for a Knox County Health Department testing site. They needed a place they could stay set up, unlike the Expo Center. They needed large amounts of parking and interior space. They needed a space that allowed for a separate entrance and exit. She said staff is excited about having one spot from which to work.
Dr. Gotcher noted that the case benchmark hasn’t been green since September and the hospitalization benchmark has also not been green in months.
Dr. Shamiyeh presented hospital and other data for the week. The trends are all moving in the right direction. He noted that the hospitals have seen virtually no influenza hospitalizations this season and that hospitals are largely back to typical levels of patients. He said the hospitals, which had held a daily COVID call for months, have now gone to three days each week.
Dr. Gregg from UT reported about a 1% positive rate in the pooled saliva testing on campus. He noted the University has a large public vaccination event planned for Friday.
Dr. Buchanan said her office has been advised that virtual meetings will continue to be allowed for public meetings. That has not been communicated in writing. Dr. Buchanan noted that they have a monthly reservation to meet in person in the City County Assembly Room. She asked if the board might want to go ahead and shift to monthly meetings aligned with the reserved days so there would be no disruption if they have to shift.
The board agreed as long as the option remained to shift back to alternating weeks. Dr. Souza asked if there could be exceptions to attendance at the meetings if members have not been vaccinated. Mr. Sanders, with the Knox County Law Department, expressed doubt, but said he would check. Dr. Buchanan said she would want the group to space seating more widely than it is placed for county commission meetings. Dr. Gotcher said there would have to be some mechanism for reducing restrictions more frequently in called meetings should previously agreed upon inflection points be reached.
Meetings were moved to monthly and will continue at 5:00 pm (the first will be three weeks from last night, 3/17) as long meetings are virtual and changing to 5:30 if they are moved to in-person only. The motion passed unanimously.
The Board discussed the masking regulation. Dr. O’Brien made the point that we are still above thresholds set by the board. Dr. Buchanan said that mask wearing will be one of the last things to be taken away. She noted that masking is a federal recommendation. Dr. Shamiyeh pointed out that something similar to herd immunity is achieved by the combination of mask wearing, distancing and vaccination.
The early closure for restaurant and bar closures was set to expire. Dr. Buchanan made a motion to extend the curfews to March 17. Dr. O’Brien noted that Memphis and Nashville have extended their closures to midnight and raised the question of whether we could do the same. He offered a substitute motion that it be changed to midnight starting Friday night. Dr. Shamiyeh noted that an hour was added recently and questioned whether this would be considered moving slowly. The motion passed with one no vote from Dr. Drake.
The social gathering limitation was discussed and Dr. Buchanan suggested it be extended to March 18. Dr. O’Brien questioned whether we need to have it. Dr. Buchanan said it is really built on the issue of gatherings causing spread. Dr. Shamiyeh pointed out that spread is still as high as it was in November and this isn’t the time to encourage large gatherings. The group voted to extend it, with the only no vote coming from Mayor Jacobs.
Dr. Buchanan asked if the governor lifts the emergency declaration, would that remove the board’s authority. Mr. Sanders said their authority is based on statute, and not the emergency orders. That said, they get more autonomy based on the orders.