In a press release Thursday, the City of Oak Ridge said it is alarmed by the 12.5 percent positivity rate for COVID-19 in the Oak Ridge area, and wastewater testing shows the disease is present across the city.
The positivity rate measures the percentage of tests that return positive results out of the new tests each day. A 12.5 percent positivity rate means that 12.5 tests are positive out of each 100 new tests, on average.
A 12.5 percent positivity rate is high. World Health Organization guidelines call for a positivity rate below 5 percent for 14 days before activities re-open.
In its press release, the city said the 12.5 percent positivity rate in the Oak Ridge area was measured earlier this week and was obtained from zip-code specific data from the Tennessee Department of Health.
It’s in line with what the state health department has reported for Anderson County. On Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported a seven-day average 11.9 percent positivity rate in Anderson County.
The positivity rate has been high in the area and the state for a while as both experience a second upward trend in new cases, this one significantly worse than the earlier July peak. The state of Tennessee reported a record number of new deaths and current hospitalizations on Wednesday. The statewide positivity rate on Wednesday was 13.46 percent.
New cases are also growing rapidly across the country, climbing in several days from just over 100,000 new cases per day to more than 140,000 new cases, a record, on Wednesday. The COVID Tracking Project reported about 65,000 hospitalizations across the nation on Wednesday, and the seven-day average of deaths was more than 1,000.
In Oak Ridge, municipal officials, who don’t have the authority to require masks, urged residents to wear them. The city also asked people to practice social distancing. That generally means to stay at least six feet away from people who live outside your home.
“The City of Oak Ridge is strongly urging residents to take measures to protect themselves, each other, our children, our elderly and vulnerable populations, our businesses, and our homes from the ravages of the COVID-19 virus,” the press release said.
The city cited new Vanderbilt Department of Health Policy research that it said found coronavirus death rates are significantly higher in Tennessee counties that do not have mask requirements in place. Researchers found that in the first week of October, there were more than four deaths per 100,000 population in areas where masks were never required, and near or below two deaths per 100,000 in areas that had adopted a mask requirement during the summer, the press release said.
“This virus is far from under control,” the press release said. “Data from wastewater indicates COVID-19 is present across our entire city.”
On Monday, City Council passed a resolution asking for community support to help control the spread of the virus. It encouraged people to wear masks, wash hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, avoid crowds, and ensure appropriate distancing during activities and functions.
“This pandemic is serious,” Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said in the press release. “City Council and I recognize that we are limited on what we can do to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, the data from Vanderbilt, the CDC, and the state health department about our community warns us that we are on a track for an increase in cases. Moving toward the Thanksgiving holiday, all residents should be conscious of the actions they should take to prevent the spread of this deadly virus.”
A spike this winter is anticipated nationwide, as more people spend time indoors and gather with families and friends over the holidays. While news released this week regarding a possible vaccine sounds promising, it’s not going to be available to the public for several months.
Oak Ridge City Council member Ellen Smith has been tracking the state’s numbers for months and said the current surge in the per capita rate of new cases and the percentage of positive tests started around the beginning of October. Prior to that, the positivity rate in Anderson County had hovered around 5 percent positivity, well below today’s 12.5 percent positivity rate, the press release said.
“Infectious disease experts say that rate should be under 5 percent, but when it gets up to 10 percent or more, that’s a good indication that there are more cases going undetected and the virus is spreading faster every day,” Smith said. “We all need to double down in our efforts to reduce the potential for exposure and potential to expose to somebody else. That means wearing masks and asking ourselves whether we really need to visit a place or engage in an activity where we’re going to be around other people outside of our household.”
Recent zip-code specific data show that Oak Ridge averaged about seven new cases per day in the three-week period that ended November 4, the press release said.
It said the city has been in an active mode to muster city resources for the protection of its citizens while continuing to provide essential city services since February, before the pandemic began in Tennessee. The city has taken steps to close or limit public facilities, secure access to essential work areas, provide for new online meetings, practice social distancing, and accommodate people in the conduct of city business, the press release said.
“As I observe the rise in positive virus activity in Oak Ridge, every smallest precaution we take can avoid serious health consequences,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said. “As I observe those that have had COVID, they do not want to go through it again.”
Since the beginning of March, 14 city employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and 32 have been quarantined.
The city is also continuing to conduct COVID testing in the City’s wastewater, the press release said.
“From the data, there’s still an upward trend,” Oak Ridge Public Works Director Shira McWaters said. “We have positives everywhere. Some places are higher than others and all areas are in the yellow range with the exception of several western sewer sheds that are in the red.”
To read the full resolution, find the latest COVID-19 information on Oak Ridge and more on how to protect yourself and others from this virus, visit OakRidgeTN.gov.
County, state stats
On Thursday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported a total of 296,725 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began March 5. There have been 3,788 deaths and a record-high 1,749 hospitalizations.
Anderson County has had 2,227 cases, 19 deaths, and 59 total hospitalizations (three new hospitalizations were reported Thursday).
Roane County has had 1,819 cases, with 11 deaths and 47 hospitalizations.
Knox County has had 15,261 cases, with 109 deaths and 505 hospitalizations.
Loudon County has had 1,924 cases, with 13 deaths and 52 hospitalizations.
Morgan County has had 532 cases, with six deaths and 11 hospitalizations.