Grim COVID news dominates meeting

Dr. James E. Shamiyeh discusses hospital resources during a surge in COVID cases. Photo by Moira Charnot.

A sharp increase in hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID that started in mid-July has only continued to grow, according to data presented at the Knox County Advisory Board of Health board meeting held Wednesday. 

Deaths caused by COVID throughout August and September have been nearly triple the number of deaths in the same months last year, with at least 791 Knox County residents having died since the pandemic began. 

“The devastating reality of this is that this time around, we have a safe and effective vaccine that is widely available and can prevent some of these deaths. Unfortunately, we know many of these individuals were not vaccinated,” said Dr. Martha Buchanan. “We’re also seeing younger populations suffering from severe disease and dying from COVID than we saw last year.”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first since Buchanan announced her resignation from both of her positions as the senior director of the Knox County Health Department and the county’s public health officer.

The Board of Health used to have the power to set policy and impose regulations. County Commission, however, stripped the board of its powers earlier this year, effectively reducing it to an advisory body.

According to Buchanan, hospitalizations have increased at a faster rate during the past few months than at any other time since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. 

She also shared the number of confirmed COVID cases in the community per day from June to September 21. The data provided by Buchanan showed a massive spike in cases that began in mid-July and peaked September 7 with 933. 

Hundreds of cases are still being reported daily, Buchanan said, with 246 new infections logged before Wednesday’s meeting among at least 5,544 active cases in Knox County.

An estimated 72,418 people have been infected in Knox County since the pandemic’s beginning.

According to Buchanan’s statistics, the age group with the steepest increase in infections since mid-August was school-age children between 5 and 17 years old.

On Aug. 11 — just as classes were starting up in Knox County Schools — there were 44 new pediatric cases. By August 30th, however, that number had swelled to at least 258 new cases.

The COVID pandemic is now believed to have killed more Americans than the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which took the lives of an estimated 675,000 men, women, and children. COVID has certainly been far deadlier in Knox County than the Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 225 people in October 1918.

Board member James E. Shamiyeh shared data from the perspective of area hospitals. He urged officials to focus on staffing and for additional resources to be found for hospitals in Knox County due to the increase of COVID patients sent to intensive care units in the past few months. 

He noted that on the “winter peak date” of January 7 there were 671 patients in area hospitals with 102 of them on ventilators, while on September 17 there were 724 hospitalized patients with 148 of them on a ventilator.

“The consequence of this, what happens when you are having more patients in the ICU, is naturally, sicker patients will be in the hospital, not in the ICU. And so, effectively, your entire building is sicker than it was before, and there’s a domino effect,” Shamiyeh said.

“As we mentioned before, a lot of this has been about staffing for the health care system. Because of the level of expertise required, creating a staffed ICU bed is harder to do than to create a staffed regular bed,” he continued.

There has also been a surge in the number of patients who’ve needed to be treated with monoclonal antibodies in order to fight off COVID.

In January, for instance, 342 doses were administered to COVID patients. In September, the number of doses given peaked at 975. Shamiyeh stated there have been worries about an upcoming shortage of the antibodies, and the majority of people treated with them tend to stay in the hospital longer.

“We are following the guides we’ve been given to make sure that the patients who are at the highest risk and those who will benefit from it the most are the ones who receive it first, in the event that we have a shortage of supply,” Shamiyeh said.

The Board of Health on Wednesday also welcomed a new member to its ranks.

Dr. John Adams, an infectious disease specialist in Knoxville, is filling in the position that formerly belonged to Dr. Patrick O’Brien, who chose to resign from the board earlier this year.

“I’m delighted to be here, to be able to add my voice and expertise to the health and welfare of East Tennessee,” Adams said.

The next board meeting, set to take place on December 22, will be Buchanan’s last meeting.

Buchanan will be leaving her post at the Health Department on Oct. 1. Until a replacement can be found, Buchanan’s roles will be filled by Katharine Killen and Kevin Parton.

Moira Charnot can be reached at

Published on September 23, 2021.