Sullivan County health officials uncertain what COVID-19 means for region’s future

Local Coronavirus Coverage

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – The future for the region is uncertain, but Sullivan County Health Officials said they plan to work with Gov. Bill Lee’s plan to begin reopening the economy next week.

Leaders with the Sullivan County Health Department answered questions from Kingsport aldermen and Mayor Pat Shull during a meeting on Tuesday.

Director Gary Mayes said the department, one of six metropolitan health departments across the state not directly governed by the Tennessee Department of Health, will comply with Lee’s forthcoming guidelines as businesses begin reopening next week.

Read more: Which businesses will reopen first? TN Gov. Bill Lee says details coming ‘later this week’

But officials said they aren’t sure what the rest of the year will look like for the region.

When Alderman James Phillips asked Mayes what the pandemic might mean for summer events like Funfest and Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, Mayes said Lee’s guidelines will dictate the future of events drawing crowds of people.

“If there are limitations for gatherings on large groups of people, I think we need to know the answer to that before we can answer those types of questions,” he said.

Previous story: Gov. Lee: ‘Safer at Home’ order to expire April 30, phased reopening to begin next week

Medical director Dr. Stephen May told aldermen that efforts are ongoing to increase testing through the health department. Since the department rolled out its drive-thru clinic on Monday, he estimated officials have administered about 170 tests.

As testing increases, May said it’s possible to see an increase of cases in people who are infected with the virus but don’t have any symptoms.

“Our goal is to have a better understanding of the disease as it penetrates into the population and then to also be able to identify what is the percentage of those who are asymptomatic yet may be secreting the virus, thus being infectious,” he said.

May said people who carry the virus and don’t show signs of illness are sometimes called “superspreaders,” adding that some health professionals fear the outcome of a superspreader visiting a nursing home or assisted living facility.

While officials aren’t sure what the future holds for events in the region, they said the summer months will make tracking the virus easier as other respiratory illnesses like the flu begin dying out.

May said the goal is to have adequate rapid testing by the end of summer to be able to identify COVID-19 cases early.

“When we do have respiratory illness now, I can say with a higher degree of confidence that it most likely is COVID-19 and not the flu,” May said. “Summertime makes it easier.”

The Sullivan County Health Department is mirroring efforts by the state health department to increase its contact tracing workforce, Mayes said. He added that it might be a good idea for citizens to keep a log of daily contacts in the event that information is needed for contact tracing.

May noted that a “contact” would classify as someone an infected person interacted with within a six-foot distance for more than 10 minutes without the use of personal protective equipment.

Mayes said that while precautions like proper handwashing and social distancing have helped curb the spread of the virus in the region, it’s important for citizens to remain vigilant over the coming months to keep the spread low enough for hospitals to manage it.

“It’s easy to be complacent for all of us, and complacency will be our enemy as we move forward,” he said.

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