A facial covering mandate will go into effect for Greene County on Wednesday.
Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison announced Monday evening that the mandate would go into effect Wednesday morning. A declaration about the masks is expected to be prepared on Tuesday.
“After careful consideration and receiving very alarming and troubling statistics from Ballad Health Systems on the near tripling of hospitalization cases in our area just this week, along with the fact that our school officials are working diligently to open schools on time and as safely as possible, and as we look to keep businesses open and our economy from closing once again, it is necessary to enact a mask mandate or facial covering mandate for Greene County to assist in curbing the dramatic rise in cases across our community,” Morrison said.
The county manager acknowledged the mandate “is obviously not enforceable as it does not have the weight of law” and said said county officials won’t ask law enforcement agencies “to be the mask police.”
It is, he said, “a challenge to all of our citizens to wear a mask in open public settings where there are many gathered, and where social distancing is not possible, to help us gain control of this dramatic rise in cases before our health care system is overwhelmed.
“It is a plea to do the right thing to protect those we love and those most vulnerable,” Morrison said.
Greene County recorded six new cases of the novel coronavirus Monday, bringing the total to date to 157 and the number of active cases to 64.
Those six new cases were part of the 3,314 reported across the state Monday, a record number of new virus cases, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
Tennessee has had 65,274 cases since the pandemic began, according to the state agency, which lists 64,737 of those cases confirmed and 537 “probable.”
Shelby County had the most cases statewide in Monday’s report with 14,163. It was followed closely by Davidson County with 13,976 total cases.
Monday’s new case numbers top Tennessee’s previous one-day total of 2,451 recorded on Thursday. Monday saw eight new deaths from COVID-19 — the illness caused by the virus — in Tennessee, bringing the total number of deaths from the pandemic to 749.
Greene County has had two deaths, and 91 people who have recovered from the illness.
Other surrounding counties also have increasing numbers of active cases. There are 130 active cases in Washington County, which will be under a mandate for people to wear facial coverings in public places beginning Tuesday. Active case totals in other counties include 300 in Sevier, 253 in Hamblen, 106 in Sullivan, 74 in Cocke, 51 in Carter and 39 in Hawkins.
With these increases, Ballad Health officials have renewed their calls for people to take precautions.
“The number of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals is rapidly increasing on a weekly basis,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician executive of Ballad Health. “The disease is spreading more rapidly than ever, and it poses a serious threat to our community. Each of us is at risk, and it’s up to each of us to take precautions to slow the disease.
“If you’re clamoring for a return to normal, but not wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing or being hypervigilant about hand hygiene, you’re not helping our community reach that goal,” he said. “In fact, by refusing to take sensible steps to protect yourself and others, you could be causing serious damage to you and those around you.”
Runnels expressed further concern that, with the steep increase of local COVID-19 cases, Ballad Health’s hospitals and medical facilities could become overwhelmed, leading to overflowing intensive care units (ICUs) and supply shortages that have struck other hospitals and health systems in places such as Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York, in a release from the health system.
As of July 9, nearly 20% of Ballad Health’s ventilators were in use, and the health system’s beds were at more than 75% capacity. Runnels and other Ballad Health leaders are now worried that, as the year extends into flu season, the number of people in the Appalachian Highlands who need major health care interventions will outpace hospital units’ capacities and staffing levels.
“Unless major steps are taken now, by everyone, to slow COVID-19, we could be facing a situation in which we have to make serious decisions about how we deliver care, and if we’re going to be able to provide certain health care services for everyone who needs them,” he said. “These kinds of difficult choices might have seemed far-fetched once upon a time, but as the COVID-19 curve climbs higher, that scenario becomes more and more real.”
An estimated 5-10% of people who contract COVID-19 are eventually hospitalized. COVID-19 hospitalizations within Ballad Health have ranged from pediatric patients to the elderly.
Face masks are now mandatory for all individuals entering the Greene County Courthouse.
The face-covering requirement is effective Tuesday “and continues until further order of the (Tennessee Supreme) Court,” Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins wrote in an order issued late last week.
The state Supreme Court issued the statewide order “requiring all persons entering a courthouse for the purpose of court-related business to wear a face covering over the nose and mouth.”
Face covering “shall be worn at all times while in the building,” Bivins wrote.
Bivins first issued an order March 13 declaring a judicial emergency in the state relating to the coronavirus pandemic. The emergency has been extended multiple times through additional orders.
As coronavirus cases lessened in number, Bivins on May 26 issued order easing restrictions on in-person hearings and allowed for jury trials to begin after July 3. No trials are scheduled in Greene County in the immediate future, Circuit Court Clerk Chris Shepard said Monday.
All other pandemic safety protocols put in place in May by the state Supreme Court remain in effect.
“We are basically following the same rules we are on right now (but) masks are mandatory. I guess that is the biggest change,” Shepard said.
Many people who have business at the courthouse are arriving with a face mask, but masks will be provided to those who don’t have one, Shepard said.
Free face coverings have been made available at the courthouse by the Greene County Bar Association and Greene County Sheriff’s Department.
The court system in Greene County reopened May 1.
Restrictions and procedures relating to COVID-19 were put in place when court resumed.
Each person entering the courthouse is asked a series of health-related questions and has their temperature taken with a no contact thermometer by a court security officer.
The number of people allowed in the courthouse and each courtroom will be monitored by the presiding judge and courthouse security. A large tent covering to accommodate the overflow was placed recently in front of the Greene County Courthouse.
The plan to ensure the safety of everyone entering the courthouse “will be exacted with military-type precision,” 3rd Judicial District Chancellor Douglas T. Jenkins recently said.
The May 26 order allows judicial districts to to operate under their court-approved approved plans.
The Supreme Court order issued Thursday “does not change those provisions and only adds a state-wide face covering requirement,” Bivins wrote in the Supreme Court order.
Greene County judges continue to conduct video arraignments when possible in criminal cases and conduct other business on a limited basis in response to the pandemic.
Face coverings are also available for free or low cost at https://tnmasksupply.com.
Bivins said courthouses in judicial districts across the state are also coordinating with local Tennessee Emergency Management Agency offices to make masks available.
For more information, visit the Tennessee Supreme Court’s coronavirus webpage: https://www.tncourts.gov/Coronavirus
Health and safety concerns for teachers and students in Greene County Schools was the main topic of discussion at the called Greene County Board of Education meeting Monday night.
The meeting was called in order to approve the Framework for Returning to School document developed by the district for returning to school in the fall.
After extensive discussion the board approved the document with two amendments as the framework for a return to “brick and mortar” instruction.
Director of Schools David McLain said a separate plan for virtual learning will be finalized later this month.
The amendments to the plan are to align the definitions for rate of COVID-19 spread with the definitions in the plan developed by Greeneville City Schools and to change the protocols for screening students and staff to say that if a student is found to have a temperature of 100 or higher he or she should stay home. Before the amendments the document contained some references to students staying home if a temperature of 100.4 was discovered.
The plan developed by Greeneville City Schools, Framework for Safe Reopening of Schools, defines a rate of spread as “no to minimal” if there is an average rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 of 0-6.99 in the previous 14 days for a period of three consecutive days. Spread is considered “minimal to moderate” while there is an average per 100,000 of 7-10.99 new cases in the same time period of 14 days for three consecutive days, and an average rate of 11 or more per 100,000 in the same time frame is considered substantial.
McLain said the Greene County school system will align the definitions for rates of spread with those defined in the city schools’ plan as both districts are involved with the Greene Technology Center and deal with the same community and health department.
The board heard from Rebekah English, regional director of the Tennessee Department of Health for the northeast region, who discussed how the rate of spread is calculated and took questions from board members.
English explained that because Greene County does not have 100,000 residents, the averages for Greene County published on the health department website are prorated to 70,000.
McLain and English discussed the close relationship both said will exist between the school system and the health department in order to track new cases and mitigate risks.
English said that while weather incidents and the flu season produce similar concerns when it comes to potential school closures, the situation is trickier with COVID-19, and a detailed investigation would follow a positive test in the district. This would help to identify any clusters, where one person exposes and infects others in a particular location, and help to contain the spread, English explained.
“This is uncharted territory and it’s a hard situation for all of us,” McLain said. “We have to work jointly with the health department.”
Positive cases within Greene County Schools will not necessarily lead to district-wide closures, McLain said, but instances involving positive cases will be considered on an individual basis and a decision may be reached to close one class rather than a systemwide closure.
“We can’t tell you to close a school, but we can give you the metrics and tell you about clustering,” English said referring to clusters of cases related to an initial exposure to the virus.
English also discussed the benefits of wearing masks and frequent hand washing but acknowledged the difficulties in making sure young children particularly follow directions.
However English praised the plan as “a tremendous job done over a difficult subject.”
The board also heard from Rhonda Lankford, Greene County Education Association president and a teacher at Chuckey-Doak High School, who discussed concerns about the Framework for Returning to School document submitted to her by teachers within the district.
Lankford said that while teachers want to return to the classroom, many are in high-risk categories or live with someone who is and are concerned for their own safety and their family’s safety.
Some of the concerns Lankford discussed included cleaning product shortages and uncertainty over what a switch to virtual learning would look like in the event the rate of spread becomes substantial.
Lankford also said some teachers wanted a plan for a staggered schedule where students attend school on staggered days each week and were concerned that the safety precaution of locking doors could worsen instances where a student is carrying COVID-19.
“Nobody wants normal as bad as teachers and students, but safety has to come first,” Lankford said. “Some teachers feel very safe, but others do not.”
Board member Clark Justis also expressed serious concern for teachers and school staff over the rising number of positive and active cases in Greene County.
Justis made a motion to amend the academic calendar to extend the start of the school year out three weeks from August 5 to August 24 in order to see how reopening on schedule goes for other districts in the region before deciding to reopen Greene County Schools.
Justis said some teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 and stressed concern for teachers and principals in high risk categories. Justis also expressed concern for the possibility of having to close schools after starting in August if many teachers or custodians become ill and cannot work.
“Waiting three weeks would give us a much better idea of what the health and wellbeing of our community will be,” Justis said.
Board member Minnie Banks seconded the motion, but the motion did not pass.
McLain said in preparation for a return to school in-person, as a majority of parents expressed preference for in surveys conducted on the district website, Greene County Schools has purchased 200 face shields, thousands of masks and 40 electrical and cordless sprayers for cleaning chemicals.
The district will also begin advertising for part-time custodians to clean schools in the evenings. These positions will be paid for through CARES Act funds.
The board also voted to approve Greene County Schools as a critical infrastructure using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infrastructure guidelines. This classification provides a framework for asymptomatic employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 to continue working as long as they do not develop symptoms and additional precautions are taken while the employee is at work following exposure.
McLain said the district’s plan for continuous education to continue learning even if spread becomes substantial and schools close due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases is due July 24.