Knoxville health leaders reflect on COVID-19 response one year into pandemic

Knoxville health leaders reflect on COVID-19 response one year into pandemic

While there are areas of success within the health community, there were also shortcomings. Health leaders hope the community is on a bright path.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Health leaders in Knoxville are reflecting on the past year spent in a pandemic: the accomplishments, shortcomings and outlook in the medical field.

The first case of COVID-19 reported in Knox County came on March 12, 2020. Since then, the numbers of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths fluctuated through the remainder of 2020 and into 2021.

Knoxville and Knox County were marked as “hotspots” by the Centers for Disease Control beginning in the summer 2020 months.

Next week marks three months since vaccines arrived in Knox County and cases started to decline.

Charity Menefee, Knox County Health Department’s Director of Communicable and Environmental Disease and Emergency Preparedness, said there’s no way they could have imagined what the last year would have been like.

“We are so proud of the team that we have and the work that they’ve done,” Menefee said. “We remain committed to our community and we’ll continue to work through that, hopefully, the end of this pandemic and through the recovery process that we’ll hopefully be seeing very soon.”

More than 34,600 people are currently on the waitlist for vaccines in Knox County.

UT Medical Center’s Senior Vice President, James Shamiyeh, said in a press conference Thursday he knew the pandemic wouldn’t be here for a short stint. He also said he feels the vaccines introduced a “bright spot” in the community.

“I’m hopeful that the next three months of our vaccination involvement look a lot like the last three months did,” Shamiyeh said.

Shamiyeh believes there won’t be a single day when the county is able to say that the pandemic is over, and instead, everything will continue to happen in phases.

“What we have to remember is, in retrospect, all of those things that we did in the past year, they make a lot of sense now, but when we were in the middle of it, we were learning as we went, and I think there’s still going to be an element of that, for these next phases of the pandemic, as to what exactly post-pandemic life looks like,” Shamiyeh said.

He believes there are things the healthcare system has learned throughout this worldwide health crisis that will stick around, like offering telehealth services. 

Shamiyeh added the biggest successes during the last year have been the vaccine rollout and the collaboration between the collective healthcare providers in Knox County. They now feel better-equipped to handle health crises now that trial-and-error phases have run the course.

“I truly feel that we have a top-notch healthcare delivery system in this community. The fact that we have hospitals that are ready to serve significant populations of patients and every hospital had a surge plan, where we created those early and modified them as we went,” Shamiyeh said. “The ability to respond and have that on a large scale, quickly, is something that we would want to focus on the next time.”

Being able to test for COVID-19 early-on was a huge asset in UTMC’s eyes. Testing turnaround time has only gotten faster nationwide.

There were certain things Shamiyeh believes could have been handled better. Access to Protective Personal Equipment was a big one.

“Knowing that we had the PPE that we would need to have in the very beginning, and not having to navigate through that early in the pandemic, would have been something that would have been very helpful,” Shamiyeh said.

Looking to the future, Shamiyeh is hopeful healthcare workers on the front lines suffering from “compassion fatigue” are able to bounce back.

RELATED: UT Nursing Dean: ‘Compassion Fatigue’ may increase for healthcare workers during pandemic

“We are in a better phase right now than we were before, but we still have a significant number of cases, we have fewer hospitalizations than we did before,” Shamiyeh explained. “So those health care workers have had an opportunity to recharge just a little bit and I think that with that recharging whatever element of compassion fatigue that was there gets restored.”

There is still much the health system in Knox County is learning about the pandemic and they are mourning the losses associated with the virus in the community.

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