The Hamblen County Coronavirus Task Force came together quickly.
The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was just first starting to enter the United States after devastating Wuhan, China. It was well before the virus was classified as a pandemic, but county leaders knew a storm was brewing.
“At that time, it was, ‘What if?’” Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said.
Chris Bell, Hamblen County Emergency Management Agency director, first floated the idea, Brittain said. He thought it was time to get all of the government, healthcare and business leaders together in one room and discuss the potential of the virus coming to Hamblen County.
Brittain said there was one question in particular that needed answered: “What is everyone’s role in this?”
So, the task force, which included leaders in the business community and government, met on Feb. 27 for the first time at the Hamblen County Health Department.
They came together in a semi-circle and started defining their roles, strategizing plans and coming up with ideas.
One of the first ideas was to start videos to educate the public about the coronavirus and to answer any questions. Brittain said they wanted to address the facts and not the myths and rumors.
They set out to try and quell the growing fears of the public as more and more cases started appearing across the United States and in Tennessee. The task force is still addressing those as Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, gives nearly daily video briefings on the latest news from the task force and answers questions.
David Purkey, former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and former Hamblen County mayor, is on the task force. He said the task force has grown close, sometimes meeting two to three times a week.
“There could not have been a better team assembled to look at both the preparedness efforts and response to COVID-19,” he said.
He also has experience with task forces, especially during his time in Nashville, at one point serving as chairman of one.
“Having experienced that, I’d rate the efforts of this one right at the top,” he said. “The people of Morristown and Hamblen County can feel good knowing who is looking out for them.”
Perry said one centralized organization is needed to coordinate all entities.
“We have all the main decision makers on this task force and we can get together and make those decisions without making those in isolation,” he said.
He said another strength is having a lot of people on board who can look at the decisions made and the consequences of what will happen if those decisions are made.
“I’ve been impressed with the amount of cooperation and coordination I’ve seen from everybody,” Perry said.
Bell said there was no doubt the task force needed to be put together quickly with a diversified group. He said the group got off the ground early and the results speak for themselves.
The Hamblen County Emergency Management Agency was able to request personal protection equipment early on, videos started being shot to address rumor control and the school system staff stepped up to collect needed information.
“It provided a real quick response and actions have shown we’re on the front lines of East Tennessee,” Bell said.
He’s been impressed to see leaders from all sectors working together, he said.
“This group really meshed quickly,” he said.
Brittain said the strength of the task force is having so many people with individual expertise in their field that can lay eyes on problems and come up with solutions.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “There’s a lot of communication.”
He said the task force is composed of people who are working for a greater good.
“Everybody listens,” he said. “Everybody is on the same page.”
He said he thinks the community will be prepared if the virus spreads into Hamblen County.
“I think we’re prepared...” he said. “If there is a surge, I think we’re prepared.”
Those on the task force include:
• Bill Brittain, Hamblen County mayor and Task Force chairman
• Gary Chesney, mayor, City of Morristown
• Dr. Jeff Perry, superintendent, Hamblen County Schools
• Tony Cox, Morristown City Administrator
• Chris Bell, director, M-H Emergency Management Agency
• Dr. Tom Thompson, Morristown surgeon
• Gordon Lintz, CAO, Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System
• Aundrea Parrott-Mills, vice president and chief nursing officer, Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System
• Danny Housewright, director, Morristown-Hamblen Emergency Medical Services
• David Purkey, retired commissioner of Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security
• Rita Bunch, CEO, Healthstar Physicians
• Sherrie Montgomery, director, Hamblen County Health Department
• Chrissy Hicks, nursing supervisor, Hamblen County Health Department
• Beth Fancher, Hamblen County Health Department
• Marshall Ramsey, president, Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce
• Tony Miksa, president, Walters State Community College.