East Tennessee mayors agree it’s time to reopen

Mayors from eight East Tennessee counties gathered Wednesday in Knoxville to deliver a shared message to residents: It’s time to reopen.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, speaking first at the press conference at Volunteer Landing, said a joint strategy is necessary because people throughout the region cross county lines to eat, shop, work and explore the outdoors.

Although testing has been sparse in the region, Jacobs and the mayors of Anderson, Blount, Jefferson, Loudon, Roane, Sevier and Union counties expressed confidence the worst of the coronavirus pandemic had passed and East Tennessee could weather any upticks caused by reopening.

“From the president and CDC to Gov. (Bill) Lee and our local health departments, our communities have been equipped with the health guidance we need to be smart and cautious in protecting each other as we get back to work,” said Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank.

Not a single mayor from the counties represented — Grainger County Mayor Mike Byrd could not attend — wore a mask during the press conference, a guideline suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only speaking official who wore a mask was Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

After the press conference, Jacobs told Knox News “we’ll be transparent and we’ll be public” about benchmarks used for reopening the economy.

The biggest factor Knox County will look at, Jacobs said Wednesday, is the number of new cases and especially hospitalizations.

“I think the most important thing is the virus is going to spread, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” he said.

Public health experts from across the nation have said robust testing is critical to keep the virus in check as stay-at home policies are relaxed.

To contain an easily transmitted disease like COVID-19, it would require testing 2% to 6% of the population daily, according to an analysis from the Edmond J. Safra Center at Harvard University.

For Knox County, that would require 9,400 tests daily at the low end, and for the nine-county region the total would be 19,640. At the high end, it would be 28,200 tests daily in Knox County and 58,920 daily across the region.

Gov. Bill Lee promised April 15 that all Tennesseans, regardless of symptoms, will be provided tests.

The most the county has tested so far at any one time is around 400 on both Monday and Tuesday before running out of supplies at an overwhelmed drive-through testing site.

‘Our testing capacity is so limited’

Since closing the drive-through testing site, Knox County has returned to an appointment-based system favoring those with symptoms.

Kincannon said at Tuesday’s Knoxville City Council meeting that numbers should be made public when it comes to making decisions about reopening businesses.

But Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan says it’s not so simple.

“We can’t just base it on testing,” Buchanan said at the meeting. “I’ll be honest, because our testing capacity is so limited, and I don’t see it getting a whole lot better.”

Because Knox County is not a “hot spot” for COVID-19 in Tennessee, which itself is not a “hot spot” among states, Knox County is not a priority when it comes to testing resources, Buchanan said.

So far, numbers through April 22 show Knox and its eight surrounding counties have administered roughly 8,700 tests, according to data published by the state. This number was determined by adding the total number of positive results and negative labs from each county.

Is it time to move forward?

The Harvard analysis is grounded in the goals of quickly restarting the economy and limiting restraints on people’s rights.

“Creating the complex supply and delivery chains required for testing at this scale will require a rapid coordination of business activity unprecedented since World War II,” says the report. “But the cost of such a testing and tracing, or TTSI, program — $50 to 300 billion over two years — is dwarfed by the economic cost of continued collective quarantine of $100 to 350 billion a month.”

The Harvard analysis tries to bring together best recommendations from a variety of sources, and is in line with the best advice from other experts.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump suggested that everyone who visits a doctor should get tested. In an interview with Politico he placed this at roughly 3.8 million people a week, or a little more than 1% of the population.

The U.S. has conducted about four million tests over the pandemic, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project. Chronic supply shortages have hindered efforts to expand testing capacity.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans support social distancing, even if it causes damage to the economy, according to polls last week by Politico/ Morning Consult and NBC News.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

Published April 23, 2020