Task Force discusses protocols for return to work after testing positive

Because of the chance of a false positive in the wake of a bout with COVID-19, the Tennessee Department of Health is recommending that employers not require a negative test before allowing recovered employees to return work, the Hamblen County Coronavirus Task Force said in its Wednesday meeting.

The health department has issued letters in English and Spanish explaining the policy to Tennessee’s employers.

“When an individual has a positive laboratory result indicating current infection with COVID-19, TDH requires them to isolate at home for a minimum of 10 days - and they must be (without fever) and well for at least 24 hours,” the letter states. “There is no requirement to have a negative laboratory result to be released from isolation, as long as these time and symptom criteria are met. This is consistent with CDC’s recommended time-based strategy. There is substantial evidence that an individual may continue to have positive laboratory results beyond their infectious period.”

Sherrie Montgomery, director of the Hamblen County Health Department, said that as of Wednesday, Hamblen County had averaged 35.71 cases per day over the last 14 days. She added that last week, the department averaged 211.6 tests per day with 18 percent of those resulting in a positive.

“As far as testing here, it continues to be a lot,” she said. “We hit our highest day this week with 300 plus tests in a day.”

Several members of the task force said the numbers indicate outreach efforts into the Hispanic community are bearing fruit but more work is needed.

Dr. Jeff Perry, superintendent of Hamblen County Schools, offered further insight into the decision to delay schools until Sept. 8. Perry reiterated that due to a number of cases within the system it would have been impossible to meet Center for Disease Control guidelines in relation to class size.

Perry also sought confirmation on what would constitute an exposure requiring a student or employee be sent home to self-quarantine.

Montgomery confirmed that the CDC guidance is within six feet for more than 15 minutes but the state of Tennessee and Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare System is going by within six feet of a positive case for more than 10 minutes.

“Just passing through would not make someone a contact,” Montgomery said.

Perry and Walters State Community College President Dr. Tony Miksa also discussed the issue of liability. Perry said regionally superintendents have serious concerns are encouraging the legislature to pass a gross immunity law after failing to do so earlier in the year.

Perry said the school has restarted its feeding program. Tuesday, more than 550 meals were distributed from Hillcrest Elementary. He also noted that the Extended School Program will reopen August 3. The cost will be $10 a day through the month of August.

Asked to explain how ESP could operate but the schools could not open, Perry explained student ratios for ESP are much lower, allowing for small groups and limiting the possibility of exposure.

“We have 10 kids per classroom, open at three different sites,” he said. “If we had a case at one school, we can keep the others open. We can get smaller numbers of kids in those classrooms.”

Perry said because the program is voluntary there is less of a liability issue. There is also no bussing issue and there is a serious need among some families for the program to be available.

Perry said he’s gotten several calls from families with working parents – or single parent families – that need ESP to be in operation.

Perry said school officials are currently working on re-opening plan 2.0 and prepping for more online education.

“Our online elementary school is the biggest elementary school in Hamblen County right now,” he said.

Perry discussed Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that he planned to sign an executive order to allow contact sports to resume. There are multiple details that remain to be clarified, he said.

He said athletic directors and superintendents across the region are working on contingencies. Though the TSSAA approved a “flex” schedule that allows teams to seek a new opponent if its opponent has to cancel for COVID-related reasons, the logistics of that are problematic.

“If a football player tests positive, then they’re going to be out for two weeks,” he said. “That plays havoc on our dates and our financial pieces.”

Perry added that he worries that football players are going to try and hide symptoms because they don’t want to force themselves – or their teammates – to miss games.

“It’s going to place some kids in a bad situation,” Perry said. “I’m afraid they won’t go get tested.”

A week after reporting a decline in hospitalizations, the number has gone back up MHHS officials said.

The hospital’s non-COVID numbers remain steady, indicating people are coming to the hospital to seek care as they normally would.

“We want everyone to get medical care,” task force member David Purkey said. “Don’t be afraid to come to the hospital and seek care (for non-COVID issues.)”

Purkey noted regional law enforcement is seeking guidance on what to do if a potential arrestee claims to be positive for the COVID. There is some precedent already as other communicable diseases have been used as a threat against an arresting officer.

It was noted it is a federal offense to threaten an officer with COVID or any other disease.