Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto declared a state of emergency Wednesday as COVID-19 cases and deaths spike locally. The move comes a day after the state said that Wilson County was a “hot spot” for the disease.

“We’re just trying to put a strong emphasis again on wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing,” Hutto said, adding that he has no authority to require or mandate the wearing of masks. “We don’t have the power to do that.”

A drive-through assessment site manned by the National Guard will be set up at the Wilson County Health Department today, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Governor’s Unified Command, the multi-agency group responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The county department is at 927 E. Baddour Parkway, in Lebanon.

Hutto said the increasing rate of positive tests, as well as the jump in deaths, spurred him to act. At the beginning of June, the 14-day daily average of new cases was 6.9. As of Tuesday, that average had increased to 11.4 and had gone up for seven consecutive days. The county went 25 days, from May 12 to June 5, without an increase in deaths. Since then, the death toll has almost doubled to 15.

As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, the county had 656 cases of COVID-19 and 15 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. That compares with 327 cases and eight deaths on May 18 and 246 cases and three deaths on April 27.

“We ask all our businesses to take this very seriously to keep their customers and staff safe by reconsidering the number of people in the business area and by requiring masks in stores and businesses,” Hutto said in a news release.

On Tuesday, state Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey cited Wilson and Hamblen counties as the latest COVID-19 “hot spots” in the state. Statewide, she said, the rolling average of daily new cases has increased from 453 to 615 in the past 14 days, indicating the disease is spreading more rapidly as the state has reopened.

She said contact tracing shows that now half of the news cases are from unknown sources, whereas before most people knew who had infected them. “This tells us that we have more community spreading,” she said.

Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital President Jay Hinesley, speaking at the Lebanon Noon Rotary Club meeting Tuesday, said that COVID-19 is a “very scary disease.”

He also encouraged people to wear masks while out in public, saying, “The mask you wear protects other people.”

Unlike some other states that are seeing surges in cases, Piercey said Tennessee still has plenty of hospital capacity available despite the increase in cases.

VWCH Director of Community Relations Traci Pope said in an email Wednesday that the hospital has five COVID-19 patients and plenty of capacity.

“We have identified rooms in the old PCU area, One West, to convert into a COVID-19 unit,” she said. “Seventeen single occupancy rooms, equipped for 34 double occupancy patients. By being able to isolate our positive and PUI (patients under investigation) population, we can create a greater degree of safety for the rest of the hospital.”

The state Department of Health addressed generally what happens in the case of a surge like the one in Wilson County.

“The Governor’s Unified Command has undertaken a multi-pronged approach when responding to recent coronavirus hotspots in Sevier, Hamilton and Wilson counties,” TDH spokesman Bill Christian said in an email Wednesday. “Actions include, among others, increased public messaging, outreach and coordination with local community and unique population groups, and increased testing access and availability.”

Flener said the Unified Command would be announcing further action in the next day or two once the details are worked out.

Hutto’s original news release declaring the state of emergency included a quote from him that said, “We are requiring people to wear masks when out in public.” A clarification was sent out a few hours later that said, “We have received many calls about the word ‘required’ in our press release earlier today. We do not have the authority to require anybody to wear a mask nor will anybody be arrested for not wearing a mask.”

Masks are available at the Wilson County Health Department, according to the county.

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