(Ed. Note: Unless there is a large surge in COVID-19 cases in Knox County, this will be the final report of Board of Health meetings. Should anything significant happen during subsequent meetings, it will be covered in the Friday summary post which will start next week.)
The board began with public forum.
Dr. Richard Cunningham (Orthopedic Surgeon, restaurant owner) – He said the closures and curfews have devastated the hospitality industry and demanded they all be lifted. He pointed out that hospital capacity is no longer threatened. He said numbers have improved because so many have had the disease and have immunity. He said masks have become a divisive issue and the mandate must be removed.
Aaron Snukals asked that event facilities s be treated like restaurants at a 50% capacity saying they could take the same precautions as restaurants.
Terry Turner (owner of All Occasions Party Rentals) expressed appreciation to the board for their work and said it is time to open events with restrictions set the same as those for restaurants. He said 30 or 40 million have been lost in the industry in the last year, much of it to nearby restaurants. He said 50% capacity with clear regulation would help return the industry to viability. He asked that the board stop encouraging people to limit social gatherings to ten people.
The board was offered a chance to respond, but they agreed that the topics would be discussed as part of the agenda and they moved forward.
Dr. Buchanan reported that the Broadway vaccination site is open, and they are pleased. She said they are vaccinating 400 to 500 per day with first doses and they hope to increase to 1,000 first and second doses per day very soon. She repeated the statistics reported earlier on this website and said that vaccination numbers will continue to be updated Monday through Friday.
She recognized the decline in cases and hospitalizations and said it shows we are moving in the right direction, urging people to continue working. She likened letting our guard down now to stopping a diet because it is going well or stopping a marathon at the 24th mile. She also announced that the case numbers will no longer be updated on the weekend.
She discussed the benchmarks. Daily new cases have dropped to about 56 per day and seem to have leveled off and the metric will remain green. Lab turnaround time continues to be less than two days, but test numbers remain extremely low, so the testing metric remains yellow. The number of vaccinations given has surged, but demand outpaces supply, leaving that metric yellow, as well. Hospitalizations continue to decline, though there seems to be a plateau there, as well. The metric will remain green. Deaths have declined but are not as low as they would like and the benchmark will remain yellow.
Dr. Gotcher asked how the benchmark related to death would shift to green. Charity said there is no clear cut-off, but the White House also has our area rated yellow for the metric. Dr. Hurd noted that national case numbers have plateaued at a similar level to last year’s summer surge, and she asked if that is the case locally. Charity said she didn’t know specifically, but we are trending similarly to the state.
Dr. Shamiyeh gave his report showing that cases in Knox County continue to drop and case levels are currently like early September, but that cases have plateaued in the counties around us. He pointed out that new disease among the oldest cohorts is extremely low. Hospitalizations have continued to drop in Knox County, while they have plateaued in the counties around us. That is reflected in the census chart, which shows dramatic drops in recent weeks, followed by a pause at the end of the time frame.
Dr. Gregg said UT numbers are trending down or staying steady. He said they are pleased, but the recent clusters are concerning. He said this Friday they are offering 1,100 vaccines in their weekly event.
Dr. Cahill from U.T. joined to discuss the pending legislation in Tennessee regarding Boards of Health. The bill would remove the capacity from the board to enforce public health orders specifically during times of emergency, as determined by the County Mayor. The state has also restricted Boards of Health from restricting agriculture. A final bill would prevent any agency from forcing anyone from being vaccinated, but the bill is still evolving. The Supreme Court, she noted, has said that states do have the authority to require vaccinations.
She said that recent public surveys across the state indicate 58% of respondents feel health concerns have more impact on them than economic impact. Only 9% feel there is no benefit from wearing masks. The CDC is the most trusted source for information about mask wearing (79%) and vaccine safety (73%).
78% of Tennesseans support a mask mandate and 15% do not. 64% said they would likely get a vaccine, while 27% said probably or definitely not, and 10% were unsure. 71% are confident the vaccine is safe. 48% feel everyone should be required to be vaccinated, while 31% feel no one should be required to take the vaccine.
Dr. Buchanan expressed concern regarding an inability to regulate raw milk or other agricultural goods in the case of an E. coli outbreak. Dr. Cahill clarified that the first bill would leave decision-making power with the County Health Director. Dr. Buchanan stated that no one has discussed or considered making the COVID vaccine mandatory. Some confusion over the bills remains.
Cases per 100,000 and declining positive test rates were discussed in terms of loosening regulations. The numbers remain above what the board had set as markers to reduce restrictions. Dr. Shamiyeh said he feels that much of what happens next depends on variants, spring break and other variables. Dr. Shamiyeh stressed that the risk for an individual who gets COVID has not changed. They remain where they were on the spectrum, only the larger group picture has changed.
Charity Menefee said there is limited data regarding variants, but the UK variant is the dominant variant in the state. Dr. Shamiyeh pointed to Italy as an example of how trouble can re-emerge with the variants, but said he understands our vaccination program is much more robust. (Ed. Note: Per the New York Times charts, 22% in the U.S. have gotten at least one vaccine, while in Italy the same number is 8.1%.) Charity said we are in a race between the variant and vaccinations. Dr. O’Brien made the point that if local regulations were removed, state regulations would remain.
Regulations regarding event planners were discussed and Dr. Souza said she thought it was reasonable to place event planners under restaurant regulations. Dr. Shamiyeh said he didn’t understand any of the current regulations to be more restrictive for this group than for restaurants. Ani Roma said her understanding was that event planners were under the impression that they could not organize any events involving over 10 persons.
Dr. O’Brien said his understanding is they want to follow the Tennessee Pledge. Dr. Buchanan made the point that events are not the same as going to a restaurant, as mingling is part of an event. Mayor Jacobs said some events involve sitting at a table to listen to a speaker. He said following the same guidelines as restaurants would be a good compromise.
Dr. Buchanan made a motion to eliminate the social gathering restriction and to amend the restaurant/bar regulation to include event venues. Dr. O’Brien said community businesses had also asked for extending the deadline for closure and allow them to to follow the Tennessee Pledge. He said Nashville just last week moved from midnight to 2:00am closures. Chattanooga only has the mask mandate. The bar/restaurant regulation would be amended to move from midnight to 1:00am.
The Board voted unanimously to introduce the new regulation including event planners with restaurants and bars and extending closures to 1:00am. The mask mandate was continued without discussion. The social gathering regulation will end.
Dr. Buchanan said she had received an email from the Rotarian’s Peace Committee saying they would like to recognize the board with a resolution of special appreciation.