Five charts that show the impact of COVID-19 on Hamilton County

·5 min read

Mar. 13—A year after the first COVID-19 case was reported in Hamilton County, the region is still feeling many of the effects of the pandemic, from elevated unemployment rates to the grief forced on local families with the loss of a loved one.

The Times Free Press has compiled five charts to show the ongoing local impact of the pandemic, one year later.

COVID-19 became the third-leading cause of death in the county

In the 365 days COVID-19 was known to be in Hamilton County, 465 people died from the virus, making it the third-leading cause of death in the county over a 12-month span compared to heart disease and various forms of cancer in 2019.

The local data mirrors the national reality, in which COVID-19 is also the third-leading cause of death. This data point has led some to rally against coronavirus restrictions like closing businesses and wearing masks, since similar society-wide measures are not taken to slow diseases that kill more Americans every year.

However, COVID-19 is an infectious disease with an impact tied to its spread, unlike the chronic health conditions that kill Americans in greater numbers. Heart disease and cancer do not spread from person to person through exposure to someone who is sick or by gathering in large groups.

At the same time, there is less people can do to counteract the deadly impact of heart disease in the short term. But without immediate interventions like mask mandates and social distancing, the death toll of COVID-19 would likely have been even higher.

Andrew Noymer, associate professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, said infectious diseases used to be leading causes of death in the United States in the 19th century. Advances in medicine and lifestyle changes lessened their impact, though, and today Americans are much more likely to die from a chronic health condition than a communicable disease.

This is what makes COVID-19 unique and worthy of the public health interventions, he said.

"It is unusual in the recent history of the United States to have an infectious disease in the top five even, let alone third," Noymer said.

Hospital systems were stretched to near capacity for weeks

The level of hospitalizations continues to be a key metric in understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the community. Spikes in those receiving care at the hospitals often follow several weeks after an increase in new cases and leads to spikes in deaths.

After the smaller summer surge in cases and hospitalizations, the local hospital system faced weeks of near-capacity levels in late 2020 during the post-Thanksgiving surge.

By the end of December, a record-high 242 people were hospitalized with the virus. As those numbers fell in the past month, local officials have said Chattanooga's health care system was near its breaking point during the winter months.

Unemployment levels were multiples higher than previous recessions and economic downturns

Tennessee experienced record levels of unemployment in April and May, higher than at any point in the past 20 years years, including during the worst weeks of the Great Recession. In April, nearly 15% of all workers in Southeast Tennessee filed for jobless benefits.

Unemployment rates in the state began falling in the late summer and fall as businesses reopened and some sectors began hiring again. However, some industries were better able to rebound than others, said Sybil Topel, vice president of marketing and communications at the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.

In the early months of the pandemic, the chamber focused on getting information to businesses about how to apply for available resources, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, Topel said. Smaller businesses that did not have established or regular relationships with bankers or accountants struggled to navigate the systems, she said.

Lynn Chesnutt, director of the Tennessee Small Business Development Center in Chattanooga, said his office helped 1,260 businesses in 2020 compared to 540 in 2019. Businesses that had weaknesses prior to the pandemic or that did not have disaster savings struggled during the closures and staggered reopenings, Chesnutt said.

When restrictions began to be lifted, the chamber shifted to helping connect those looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire. The group launched ChattanoogaCalling.com to promote open positions and draw people to the area.

While the region has struggled to reach pre-pandemic employment levels, Topel said there has been a lot of good news for the local economy with businesses moving in and entrepreneurs bringing their ideas to life.

"What I really hope that people are able to see is that there are intentional, focused, collaborative resources being devoted to try to match up people who need jobs to people who are hiring," she said.

Chattanooga Airport experiences huge drop in air traffic

After five years of steady growth, and new records, the Chattanooga Airport saw a rapid decline in boardings in 2020. The year was the worst year for airline travel in the city since 1983.

The airport recorded 225,289 passenger boardings in 2020, down nearly 60% from the year before when the airport had record-level traffic.

"It was a challenging year for us," said Terry Hart, chief executive of the airport, in February. "We'll put this behind us."

Yet, airport leaders said the organization will continue its building plans, including a parking garage and possible airport expansion.

The impact on Chattanooga's tourism industry

Revenue gathered in the county from the local room tax, which taxes hotel stays to help fund tourism initiatives, took a major hit in 2020 as businesses shut down and people were ordered to stay home.

Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Company, said the downturn was "devastating." White said in February his organization was projecting a 2021 budget about 17% below the 2019 level.

In April and May, the county collected $687,114 from the tax, a 57% decrease from the same period in 2019.

However, people are traveling in greater numbers in recent months as COVID-19 cases drop and vaccination rates increase. Multimillion dollar hotel projects are slated for the Chattanooga region in 2021 and local venues think live music could be back by this fall.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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