COVID-19 in Sullivan: a matter of when, not if, community spread will be detected

J. H. Osborne • Mar 17, 2020 at 9:15 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s constitutional officeholders and other department heads have until the close of business on Tuesday to let County Mayor Richard Venable’s office know whether their offices will alter hours or public access.

Venable invited all county officials to a meeting Monday afternoon for an update on the novel coronavirus in the county, with guest speaker Gary Mayes, director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

Mayes told the group that as of 3:10 p.m., as he spoke, Sullivan County still had only one confirmed case of COVID-19 — the one confirmed last week by the Tennessee Department of Health. That person had recently returned from a high-risk area outside the United States, health officials said last week. Mayes said that person poses “no threat to public health at this time.”

Mayes noted Sullivan County continues not to have had any “community spread,” or in other words no “human-to-human” transmission of the virus. That’s important because when the county does have its first human-to-human transmission confirmed, meaning someone tests positive without having traveled to a high-risk area, it will be a benchmark for how health officials will advise the community to respond. It’s at that point, Mayes said, that his department would advise local governments to further “social distancing” to include closures of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues such as movie theaters.

Mayes said he did not know how many tests have been conducted on patients in Sullivan County, but the criteria to be eligible for testing is still the same: you’ve either traveled to a high-risk area or have symptoms. Mays said the testing criteria will likely change soon and more testing will be available. And as more tests are given, “We fully expect cases to go up.”

“We haven’t been through a pandemic in over 100 years,” Mayes said, adding that protocols and new information on COVID-19 are constantly being updated.

Mayes told the group it is prudent that they develop a plan for dealing with COVID-19 for longer than two weeks.

“We need to think in terms of several months,” Mayes said. “It is prudent to plan as though we are going to be in this situation for several months.”

Venable said he has been told it’s not a matter of “if, but when,” community spread is detected in Sullivan County.

Venable, talking to the Times News after the meeting, said most county officeholders and department heads have indicated to him that they are leaning toward keeping their offices in work-mode with staff still reporting for duty each day (unless sick), but limiting public interaction as much as possible by encouraging the use of drop boxes, online bill payments, questions asked and answered by telephone calls, and in the case of the county clerk’s Blountville office, utilization of the drive-through window for vehicle tag transactions.




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