A month after Tennessee began to reboot its economy after shutdowns intended to thwart the spread of coronavirus, most of the state’s 95 counties are not seeing noteworthy growth of the virus. But there are exceptions.
Putnam County, Rhea County, Hamilton County and Loudon County are among those exceptions in the eastern half of the state — with Cumberland County earning a dubious honorable mention.
The reasons for the growth of new cases varies. But in at least some of those counties, community spread appears to be at least partially responsible for the growth of Covid-19 outbreaks.
On Saturday, the TN Dept. of Health reported 6,715 active cases of coronavirus across the Volunteer State. That is significantly less than a week earlier, before the TN Dept. of Corrections began to declare most inmates at prison outbreaks in Trousdale County recovered, but it’s a number that has also climbed for the past two days. And it still remains well above the roughly 4,500 active cases that were present when the prison outbreaks began to be detected and drive up the numbers across the state.
Ground zero for coronavirus in Tennessee continues to be the Nashville metropolitan area. While the number of active cases declined in Davidson County this week, there are still nearly 1,500 active cases there, with a growing number of cases in the suburbs and smaller towns on the fringe of Nashville. Rutherford County now has greater than 500 active cases, while Sumner County — where the virus outbreak gained an early foothold and has been relentless — has climbed to over 400 active cases. The number of cases continues to grow in Robertson County as well, while the virus outbreak appears to be waning in Wilson and Williamson counties.
Trousdale County still has a comparatively 59 active cases of coronavirus — all of them linked to Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility in Hartsville — but that’s well below the more than 1,300 active cases that the county once had after every inmate at the prison was tested for coronavirus.
Likewise, Bledsoe County is down to five active cases, after once having nearly 600 due to an outbreak of the virus at the state prison near Pikeville.
But other counties are still dealing with prison outbreaks. There are nearly 350 active cases in Lake County, where a total of 382 inmates tested positive for Covid-19 at Northwest Correctional Complex. There are 275 active cases in Tipton County, just north of Memphis, where hundreds tested positive at a federal prison used by the U.S. Marshal Service. There are 61 and 59 active cases in Hardeman and Wayne counties, respectively — mostly linked to state prison outbreaks in those counties, as well.
The vast majority of coronavirus patients at state prisons have been asymptomatic, according to TDOC. But there have been a few exceptions. A total of four deaths have occurred — three of those at Trousdale Turner and the other at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.
Outbreak in immigrant communities
While the prison outbreaks explain some of the bright spots on a map of Tennessee’s active cases, there are other bright spots creeping up, as well.
In Rhea County, the number of active cases sky-rocketed to more than 180 this week, following testing at a farm operation near Dayton. There were only five active cases there prior to Thursday.
Rhea County Mayor George Thacker warned Wednesday night that the new cases were coming, saying, “I don’t know why this is happening right now,” but urging residents to be cautious over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
“You’re gonna have to be careful because the numbers have really jumped up,” the mayor said in a Facebook video. “We need to remember. I think we’ve all gotten a little lax here.” He urged residents to wear masks.
Dr. Craig Swfford, a surgeon from Dayton, posted on Facebook to urge residents not to panic. While the name of the farm where the outbreak occurred was not identified, Swafford said the illness had occurred in a group of migrant workers at a farm.
“(We) have been assured that these folks have been isolated and will remain so,” Swafford said. “We are working to try and make sure that they have everything they need and will not be exposing other folks in our community.”
Roane County Mayor Ron Woody, whose county borders Rhea County to the north, expressed concern on Thursday that the positive cases might spill over. However, Roane County’s number of active cases — just one — did not change Friday, and Woody said that Roane County was “fortunate not to have any related cases to Rhea County.”
However, the state announced three new cases of coronavirus in Roane County on Saturday. It was not immediately clear whether those might be related to Rhea County, as the mayor had initially feared.
A similar situation has emerged in Loudon County, where the number of active cases has grown to 80 after dozens of workers tested positive at Monterey Mushrooms in Loudon. All of the more than 300 workers at the mushroom farm were tested after a single employee was confirmed to be infected. The first 57 positive tests were reported by the state earlier this week, and more followed.
Loudon County Mayor Buddy Bradshaw said most of those workers who tested positive were asymptomatic.
Growing cases in Putnam County
In the greater Cookeville area, the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow. Putnam County was up to nearly 200 active cases of the virus on Saturday, and there have been 119 new cases confirmed there in the past nine days. According to the Herald-Citizen newspaper in Cookeville, there are currently five Covid-19 patients hospitalized in Cookeville.
On May 1, Perdue Farms — which has a chicken plant in Monterey — said that it has had employees at some of its facilities who have tested positive for the virus. However, the company did not reveal locations of those positive cases. One day earlier, Monterey Mayor Bill Wiggins praised the Perdue Farms plant in his town, saying there had been no positive tests there, to his knowledge, and that steps were being taken to keep workers safe.
There has been no indication from Putnam County officials as to what is driving the rising number of cases in the county, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. There was an early outbreak at Signature HealthCARE’s long-term care facility in Algood, sickening 51 and killing five, but that outbreak was nearly two months ago.
Whatever the case for Putnam County’s rising case load, it could be spilling over to neighboring Cumberland County, where there are now 34 active cases of the virus. Cumberland County has reported 20 new cases in the past nine days.
Increased testing responsible for rise in Chattanooga?
In Hamilton County, officials continue to appear unalarmed by a rapidly-growing number of coronavirus cases, saying increased testing is to blame.
A few weeks ago, there were fewer than 100 active cases in Hamilton County. As of Saturday, that number was up to 310, with no end of the rise in sight. In fact, 43 new cases were reported by the TN Dept. of Health in Hamilton County on Saturday alone.
Hamilton County — one of just six counties across Tennessee that operates its own health department separate from the TN Dept. of Health — says that the increased cases aren’t a sign of a worsening outbreak, but an indication that the ability to track the outbreak has greatly improved, with tests that were going undiscovered a few weeks ago now being uncovered.
Although it’s not clear how many, some of Hamilton County’s coronavirus cases have occurred in poultry plants.
According to numbers provided by the Dept. of Health, the level of testing being provided in Hamilton County pales in comparison to testing further up Interstate 75 in Knox County. As of Saturday, Hamilton County had tested 178 per 10,000 residents, while Knoxville had tested 284 per 10,000 residents.
So, while Hamilton County officials have generally blamed the increasing numbers of coronavirus cases on increased testing, the county is testing relatively few people. For comparison, Scott County as of Saturday had tested 257 per 10,000 residents — a significantly higher test per capita ratio than Hamilton County.
Oddly, a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter quizzed a Bradley County commissioner who has played down the coronavirus threat by saying the government over-reacted in its response, asking her about the rising number of cases in Rhea County — which have been attributed to an outbreak on a farm — without mentioning the rising number of cases in Hamilton County, which borders Bradley County.
Closer to home
In Knox County, the nearest metropolitan area to Scott County, there are only 23 active cases of coronavirus — a number that has dropped dramatically over the past 10 days. There is one person currently hospitalized with Covid-19 illness in Knoxville.
There were two new cases of the virus reported in Anderson County on Saturday, and one new case in Pickett County. All other counties adjoining Scott County remain unchanged. There are currently 22 active cases of the virus in the region. Half of those are in Morgan County, where five of 11 active cases are linked to the state prison near Wartburg.
By the numbers: 373,758 people have been tested for coronavirus in Tennessee, or 550 per 10,000 people. In Scott County, 565 people have been tested, or 257 per 10,000 people.
• 5.3% (19,789) of those tests have returned positive, including 7.1% (395) of the 5,588 new test results reported Saturday by the TN Dept. of Health. In Scott County, 1.9% (11) of the tests have returned positive.
• 7.9% (1,573) of those testing positive have required hospitalization, including 13 new hospitalizations reported Saturday.
• Tennessee’s 329 coronavirus-related deaths — which includes 14 new deaths reported on Saturday — equates to 20.9% of the hospitalizations.
• 1.7% (329) of Tennessee’s known coronavirus cases have resulted in death.
• 64.4% (12,745) of Tennessee’s coronavirus patients have recovered, including 179 new recoveries reported Saturday.