By LINDA THURSTON
Special to the Enterprise
New COVID-19 infections in the United States are at all-time highs this week, starting Friday and continuing through Monday.
“We are likely to see a very dense epidemic,” former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday.
Tennessee has recently reported the tenth-highest rate of new coronavirus cases in the United States, but still does not have a statewide mandate for wearing masks.
This is despite an Oct. 11 recommendation from the White House Coronavirus Task Force: “A statewide mask mandate must be implemented to stop the increasing spread among residents in rural and urban areas of Tennessee.” The weekly report had showed Tennessee as the 14th worst case in its Oct. 4 report, but the state had climbed to tenth place a week later. On Oct. 18 the state slid to 16th place.
Governor Bill Lee has extended what he calls a mandate until Oct. 30, but that declaration simply allows individual county health departments to issue mandates at their discretion.
“Statewide, one-size-fits-all mandates are not as effective in many cases as local decision making,” Lee said in an online news conference on Oct. 16, according to the Associated Press.
The CTF issues a state report every Sunday, and sends the report to all governors. The distribution of information is left to the discretion of governors. Neither the governor’s communications office nor the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which oversees the White House CTF, responded to requests for the reports. Most media organizations throughout the country which seek the information have reported a similar lack of responses.
Information for this article comes from reports posted on a website hosted by the Center for Public Integrity, and from the county mayor’s office.
The Oct. 18 report showed the City of Martin at 12th place among metro areas across the state, slightly better than the previous week, when it was in 10th place.
Weakley County rankings were 13th and 28th from Oct. 11 to Oct. 18.
Fortunately, deaths from COVID across the state are down significantly (32 percent), according to the most recent report, at 144 on Oct. 18.
Each report includes a summary of the latest information on COVID for the state, as well as recommendations for reducing the spread.
The Oct. 11 report recommends a state mask mandate, warning information directed at senior citizens (who are among those at greatest risk), weekly sentinel surveillance testing, and supervision of hospitals concerning the use of antivirals and antibodies.
According to the World Health Organization, sentinel surveillance is regular testing conducted in selected populations such as K-12 teachers, first responders and nursing homes. Sentinel surveillance is used to identify infection increases as early as possible to prevent sudden spreads.
Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum said that although the health department responds to sudden increases in infections in individual locations by conducting contact tracing, he is not aware of any sentinel surveillance efforts in the county.
The report has special information for the college population.
“Work with university students to keep cases low, with the goal of low transmission in preparation for Thanksgiving. Implement antibody testing to understand [the] fraction of students who have been infected and plan for spring semester accordingly. Test all university students before dismissing them for Thanksgiving.”
“We will test any student who requests to get tested,” said Shannon Deal, director of Student Health and Counseling Center at the University of Tennessee at Martin. “However, we focus our efforts on encouraging any student with symptoms or who are close contacts to get tested. We provide education regarding testing recommendations, and some students elect not to be tested.“
She did not indicate any specific plans to test all students before the end of the semester.
UTM’s website indicates the student body is split evenly, with about half the students opting for online or distance learning, while the rest are attending classes on campus.
“We welcome the opportunity to review any reports that can help us operate and keep our campus community safe and healthy,” UTM Chancellor Keith Carver said. “We are happy with the information that we’ve been receiving since March.”
When asked if he was aware of the CTF reports going to the governor’s office, Carver said, “We are utilizing information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Tennessee Department of Health, the UT System-wide COVID-19 task force as well as regional and local health officials. I have been very pleased with their willingness to provide information and answer questions.”
On the issue of mask use, the Oct. 11 report differs significantly from the previous Oct. 4 report, which said, “Messaging to communities about effectiveness of masks is critical as many outdoor activities will be moving indoors with colder weather approaching. Masks must be worn indoors in all public settings and group gathering sizes should be limited.”
Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum said he often receives a copy of the reports from the Jackson health department. He has issued a mask mandate, with certain exceptions, for the entire county until Friday.