Health experts urge cautious optimism as Northeast TN sees lower COVID-19 case rates

Local Coronavirus Coverage

(WJHL)- Northeast Tennessee currently has some of the lowest COVID-19 case rates in the state. Some of the area’s top health officials say the data supports the region moving into Phase Two of reopening. However, they say it’s still too early to tell if the region can declare victory over the virus.

“We should be cautiously optimistic,” said Dr. Blair Reece with ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine.

A drop in the percentage of positive cases in Northeast TN from April 12 – May 17
(Graph by Jessica Fuller)

Dr. Reece believes social distancing and mask-wearing is working to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Me personally as a physician, I have seen less patients in the last week or two that need to be tested, or want to be tested, because I’ve seen less symptomatic patients,” she said.

SEE ALSO: TDH: 18,378 cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee, no active cases in several local counties

Testing continues across Northeast Tennessee, much of it being done at senior care facilities and health departments. Dr. David Kirschke of the Northeast Regional Health Office said testing is still available for anyone who wants it.

“We’re still getting a steady stream of people that are coming to the Health Department. I would say it’s probably less than in past weeks. But there are still people coming,” said Dr. Kirschke.

The number of new positive cases reported in Northeast TN from mid-March to mid-May
(Graph by Jessica Fuller)

Dr. Stephen May of the Sullivan County Health Department says the county’s testing rates have gone up. He said 10 of the county’s 19 senior care facilities have received testing so far, and few positive cases have been found.

“So what that tells us is – one, we’re doing a better job at social distancing,” said Dr. May. “Two, the disease is not being transmitted as well. And number three, we’re doing a good job protecting our most vulnerable population.”

Dr. May said the case numbers support the region moving into Phase Two of reopening. At this phase, schools can reopen, large venues can operate with moderate physical distancing, and bars can open with lower occupancy.

“But we’ll be working with the Governor’s task force and locally, with our local leaders, to be sure that we’re ready,” said Dr. May.

Dr. Reece also said the encouraging numbers support reopening further.

“You can’t stay in sort of a lockdown state forever by any stretch,” said Dr. Reece. “I think that it’s okay to try to move forward and it’s okay to try to proceed with opening things up and getting things a little more back to normal,” she said.

The total number of COVID-19 cases that have been reported in Northeast TN counties. A majority of these cases have recovered.
(Graph by Jessica Fuller)

Even with lower case numbers, the experts say COVID-19 is still a threat, as data changes every day.

“We can think that we look good to move forward for Phase Two today, and you could call me tomorrow and I could say, ‘No the situation has changed,'” said Dr. Reece.

Dr. Kirschke said the full consequences of reopening aren’t known yet.

“I think we still need to wait a couple of weeks before we know whether we’re going to have a surge this summer in cases related to the reopening,” he said.

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