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Chattanooga leaders worried about economic impact of COVID-19, split on Erlanger future

Chattanooga, TN  |  September 25, 2020 6:00am  |  By Elizabeth Fite

Chattanooga leaders are worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic but most feel confident about our preparedness for the looming flu season, according to the latest Times Free Press Power Poll — which surveyed 134 individuals in Chattanooga and Hamilton County who make or influence policy decisions at the local, state and federal levels.

This poll, conducted Monday through Thursday, drew responses from 83 individuals, for a 62% response rate. Topics focused on local health care issues such as COVID-19 and whether or not it’s worth exploring different ownership models for Erlanger Health System.

Hamilton County and hospital officials as well as the legislative delegation have repeatedly said “Erlanger is not for sale” since a Pennsylvania-based private equity firm offered $475 million to buy Hamilton County’s public hospital last month. However, nearly half (49%) of Power Poll respondents said they believe it’s worthwhile to explore different ownership models for Erlanger, which like many hospitals was dealt a devastating financial blow as a result of the pandemic.

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In a COVID-19 era, the flu Vaccine Remains Essential

By Dr. Andrea Willis

Senior Vice President, Chief Medical Officer

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

Most conversations about a “vaccine” these days are understandably about when we can expect a safe, tested and proven way to combat COVID-19.

But there’s another virus to be concerned about — the flu. And this year’s vaccine is available now. It takes about two weeks to be fully effective, so getting a flu shot now will help protect you as influenza starts to spread in October.

As community leaders, I urge you to share the importance of getting a flu shot with others.

On average, the flu hospitalizes more than 200,000 Americans per year.  Worse, it can result in deaths in the tens of thousands across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 1,600 Tennesseans died from influenza during the 2017-2018 season.

Pair that with a pandemic that shows few signs of slowing before flu season begins, and the gravity of the situation is clear. This year, the flu could actually be more dangerous than usual.

That may sound frightening, but let me explain why it’s true — and what we can do to help prevent it.

The Influenza/COVID-19 Connection

Our public health care infrastructure is going to be challenged. The past few months have seen the tragic results of a limited number of health care resources, such as not enough COVID-19 tests, overworked and exhausted front-line providers, and fewer adult hospital beds.

Like COVID-19, the flu is easily transmitted via droplets that result from sneezing, coughing or talking.

Adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, young children, and those with a history of asthma, heart disease and stroke, and diabetes are most susceptible to the flu.

Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause severe upper respiratory infections. Studies have shown a flu shot can reduce the likelihood of catching the flu by 40-60%.

Even if you aren’t at high-risk, getting vaccinated can help protect those who are.

Ironically, people staying at home as a safety precaution for COVID-19 may be afraid to visit the doctor.. Call ahead to hear about what safety precautions are in place in the office to protect you or consider drive through flu shot clinics that may exist in your area.  We have to stay as safe as we can, and that means getting a flu shot – not avoiding one.

Remember: Vaccines are Safe

Even with this reality upon us, we don’t have to live in a state of panic. Vaccines have been proven safe and effective for decades. Consider diseases like polio, which was eradicated in the U.S. thanks to development of a commercial vaccine in 1961.

Measles rates dropped for many years after its vaccine was widely accepted beginning in 1963, though we’re now seeing a resurgence because some children aren’t vaccinated.

The flu vaccine is one step you can take to help protect yourself in this environment where both the flu and COVID-19 are present.  Each can cause severe respiratory illness individually and it is possible to have a dual diagnosis.  Even if the flu vaccine isn’t always exact, its safety has been tested and proven reliable.   Most individuals who receive it either avoid contracting the virus or have a milder case if they do.

The benefits of the flu vaccine far outweigh the risks.

If you have health insurance, your flu shot is likely covered at no or very little cost. If you don’t have insurance, remember that most local health departments in Tennessee have free flu shots available while supplies last, in addition to offering flu shots at a reasonable cost.

So please, get your flu shot, and if you can, get it now. And encourage others to do so, as well. Getting ahead of the virus’ spread could prove crucial for the health of you and your loved ones.

Related resources from BlueCross:

Key facts about the flu shot and where to get one
Public Service Announcement from Dr. Willis
7 facts about the flu shot


When asked about flu season readiness, 78% of respondents said they were either somewhat confident (60%) or very confident (18%) that local government and health providers are prepared for what some are calling a “twindemic.” About 22% of respondents said they were not confident in our ability to weather COVID-19 on top of the flu.

Leaders appear much more concerned about the damage COVID-19 has had on local businesses and the economy.

Only three respondents (4%) said they’re “not worried at all” about the long-term impact of the coronavirus from an economic standpoint, whereas 20% said they were “very worried,” 19% said they were “not too worried” and the majority — 57% — said they were “worried.”

Most respondents (69%) believe it will take two years or more for our area to recover fully from the economic damage brought on by the coronavirus, including 22% who believe it will take three or more years. A quarter of respondents believe it will take a year to recover, and only 6% think it will take less than a year.

Charles Wood, vice president of economic development for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, said in an email that “from a long-term perspective, we as a community must focus on future pipelines of talent able to thrive in more resilient, high-growth industries like technology.”

“There have been significant economic gains over the last few months and we are optimistic about continued improvement. However, thousands of families across our region have been impacted and we are in a state of economic fragility,” Wood said. “It is paramount that our community focus on economic development and workforce training to provide reskilling opportunities for those who have been impacted.”

Christy Gillenwater, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, thanked residents for “masking up and supporting area businesses” in her response to the Power Poll.

“These are challenging times, particularly for local businesses, and you can make a difference. Wearing a mask also enables our kids to attend school and it helps protect our fellow neighbors,” Gillenwater wrote.

The Power Poll is composed of elected officials and leaders from business, civic and nonprofit organizations, media and education. While the survey is not a scientific poll, results offer insights into the opinions and beliefs of key decision-makers in our area.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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