Knox County held an unfortunate distinction earlier this week when it led the United States in per capita, per 100,000 residents, cases. By Wednesday, Knox was down to seventh but still recorded the third highest daily average among the top ten. 

The data was originally published by The New York Times as part of its nationwide coverage. The data sited by The Times was drawn from publicly-available information from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and various state and local health agencies such as Kentucky’s daily COVID-19 report. 

 “The news that Knox County was named as the top county in the nation for our incidence rate of COVID-19 cases, was alarming, but not at all that surprising.  Over the past several weeks, Eastern Kentucky has been a “hot spot” for COVID, with the majority of the counties in our region having high incidence rates,” stated Knox County Health Department Director Rebecca Rains. 

Rains says Knox Countians need to follow guidance from the CDC and Kentucky Department for Public Health, including masking for anyone over the age of two regardless of vaccination status, avoiding large gatherings, social distancing, and isolating when sick. “The fight against this virus takes all of us working together, and everyone needs to take responsibility for the events and activities they choose to organize,” she said, adding “everyone needs to utilize every prevention measure available to them.  Although everyone is burnt out with this virus, and wants to get back to normal, now is the time, more than ever, to follow the recommendations.”

A troubling trend with COVID-19 cases is lag, as in hospitalizations and deaths lagging behind cases. In a press conference reported in last week’s issue of The Mountain Advocate, CHI Saint Joseph Chief Medical Officer Shelley Stanko said hospitalizations usually peak “three to four weeks after cases peak.” A study from Harvard University’s T.H Chan School of Public Health found that deaths often occur “two to eight weeks after the onset of COVID-19 symptoms.” Knox County’s reported deaths in the state’s daily report has remained at 49 for several weeks now. 

“It can take several weeks for a death to be verified,” said Rains, after reaching out to state officials. As of Monday, the official death total for Knox remained at 49, but in a list sent to Rains at least one more had been verified. Rains also clarified that even if someone dies in a neighboring county hospital, their death will be counted as Knox County if they have a Knox address.

The county’s spike in cases has not gone unnoticed by local officials. “With this virus, it is ever changing and we have to adapt. Knox and surrounding counties are currently seeing spikes in cases and we are hoping to see these numbers decline. We are working closely with local partners to look at ways to decrease our numbers,” said Judge-Executive Mike Mitchell. 

Barbourville Mayor David Thompson praised the efforts of the Knox County Health Department, “I think they’ve given 100% this whole time. They’ve been working late into the night; the public doesn’t understand what they’ve been going through.” Thompson added, “I don’t like wearing a mask but I do when I go in places. I got vaccinated in January…I think everyone should not just for themselves but for family and others.”

Sheriff Mike Smith called the distinction “unfortunate” and offered his prayers to those afflicted by the virus and their families. “We are dealing with it as a community as well as a nation,” he said. Smith also thanked “healthcare workers, first responders, and front-line workers for serving their communities during this difficult time.” Smith noted using as much personal protective equipment as possible when making contact with someone is necessary and sanitizing equipment and vehicles frequently. 

Barbourville Police Chief Winston Tye stated, “I think everyone needs to be more careful when they are out and about. If they feel sick, stay at home and give it a day or so to see how they feel in case they do have the virus.” 

Jailer Mary Hammons called on the community to be strong together. “As a community, we are special in how we rally together in times of crisis to pray, uplift, and help each other,” she said. She thanked the Health Department for their assistance in making vaccinations available to inmates at the detention center and noted that she herself has been vaccinated. “I would encourage our neighbors to pray about taking the vaccine, consider all the information, and make the best decision for them and their families,” she added.

Barbourville Schools Superintendent Dennis Messer stated that it will take the efforts of everyone to get back to normal, calling the statistics “troubling.” “We’re taking necessary steps to help prevent the spread of Covid cases. On the district level we are promoting vaccinations for all eligible staff and students. Within our buildings we practice social distancing and mask wearing,” he said. 

A statement from Knox County Schools touted the district’s efforts thus far. “The school district’s positivity and quarantine rates have remained in the single-digit percentages since we launched our dashboard three weeks ago.  With a school system of 4,000 students and having only 2% of those currently positive and 5% quarantined, we feel that those numbers are low compared to surrounding districts and the county’s overall incidence numbers that are being reported.” 

Both districts continue to frequently sanitize areas as well. The Knox Schools’ statement noted “We are prepared to take additional measures in our schools if the number of positive cases increases.  Our ultimate goal is to keep students in school, learning directly from teachers, interacting with their peers, while in a safe and healthy learning environment.”

Knox County is experiencing its largest case spike of the pandemic, with average daily cases reaching more the double their next highest point in January. Since the pandemic started, 6,313 cases have been confirmed; roughly one out of every five citizens. Knox County has the lowest vaccination rate of its surrounding counties and one of the lowest in the state. 

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