Monroe County and the State of Tennessee as a whole have continued seeing increases in coronavirus case numbers over recent weeks and Monroe County Mayor Mitch Ingram addressed that rise recently.
The current number of COVID-19 cases, as of Monday, was 366 in the county.
“We have seen more testing and we have seen more positive cases,” said Ingram. “The more activity that we see with people out in the community we are seeing a huge increase in cases.”
Another factor contributing to the increase of cases is due to the amount of people traveling for vacations, according to Ingram.
“We are just encouraging people to use good hygiene and social distance,” he noted. “We are monitoring every single day, there are no individual hotspots or isolated locations, it is very spread out with a case here or a case there.”
He stated the health care providers are currently “maxed out” with the amount of testing being performed in the county.
“Chota has been testing almost all day, every day so we are just seeing a lot of testing and, unfortunately, the results of those tests,” Ingram said. “Our trend is just like every other county, we are seeing an increase every day but we expected to see some of these increases, like two weeks after the 4th of July.”
He stated that he does not plan to change his current mandate on the use of masks in public.
“I believe it should be the community’s decision,” Ingram stated. “I don’t think forcing a mandate is right. For one, it is unenforceable and I believe they should have the right to choose.”
He noted that his office will continue to monitor the situation with the virus and, if the situation becomes dire enough, his decision on the mandate could change.
“We are monitoring the situation and if a serious situation were to occur then we would certainly look back into it,” Ingram noted. “The closest counties, I believe, with that mandate are Hamilton, Sevier and Knox, but everyone else is not forcing that mandate.”
Another topic that has been heavily discussed of late is the reopening of schools and concerns over the spread of the virus there and how to make a potential mix of in-person and virtual schooling work. He stated that his office will be closely monitoring the virus upon the reopening of schools.
“I think it is inevitable that we are going to have cases because of the masses coming back together,” Ingram said. “I think our school system has done a tremendous job in coordinating the school health and laying out the plan to welcome students and staff back as well as virtual education. They have tremendous maintenance staff that will provide a clean environment, but it will certainly be a challenge and we will monitor it day by day.”
While they may have been delayed, the coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop the commencement ceremonies for Monroe County Schools.
Sweetwater, Sequoyah and Tellico Plains high schools all held their graduation ceremonies late last week, a little over two months later than the normal May date because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The traditional graduation ceremonies still included the pomp and circumstance typically surrounding these types of events and graduates and their families and friends were able to celebrate their accomplishment.
Sweetwater was the first to hold its commencement ceremony on Thursday night, with Class President Sarah Wilson noting the historic nature of the coronavirus pandemic.
“My fellow graduating classmates and I have been given the opportunity to tell dramatic stories to our future grandchildren,” she said. “These stories will more than likely include afraid shoppers fighting over toilet paper, the rare occasion of finding disinfectant and losing times because we were trapped inside with our families.”
Wilson also talked about how much the students’ lives were disrupted as they missed much of their final semester of high school.
“We have not been given the senior year we were promised when we were younger. The graduation was postponed, spring sports and prom were canceled and our last year of school was cut short,” she said. “And although we had more free time, we were not able to leave the house or spend time with others. Even though we have a great story to tell, it’s not one we necessarily wanted to live out.”
Despite the shakeup at the end of their high school career, however, Wilson also noted that there are many positive things they can remember.
“We had an extraordinary four years at Sweetwater High School. It was an experience which shaped us into who we are today and has prepared us for our upcoming future,” she said. “I would like to use this time to personally thank the teachers and faculty at Sweetwater High School and, most importantly, my family and friends in this community for making the last four years the best they could’ve possibly been.”
Sequoyah High School followed Sweetwater on Friday night, with Class President Christian Murphy encouraging his fellow graduates to look ahead as their senior season officially ends.
“We didn’t come this far to come this far,” he said. “The Class of 2020 will continue to improve our community and leave it better than we found it.”
However, never forgetting where the graduates came from is important as well, he noted.
“As we go through the future chapters of our lives, one thing I look forward to is coming back,” he said. “I know I will feel a deep sense of pride knowing I’m back where my life’s education began.”
He left his classmates with one final message as he closed out his speech: “Once achieved, always achieved.”
Tellico Plains rounded out the series of graduation ceremonies when it held its on Saturday morning.
Class President Dana Wilson considered how quickly moments in life come and go.
“I have learned a lot about myself and the world during this time. But I believe the most important thing that I have learned is that life is short,” she said. “When I was young I looked forward to all the classic high school moments — field trips, learning to drive, prom and, of course, graduating — but I never thought I would get here so soon ... it seems that only yesterday I was trying to navigate the halls as a freshman, now I am standing here looking back on four of the most memorable years of my life.”
That those moments happened should bring joy, she added.
“The sickness has changed life as we know it, it has even taken half of our senior year from us, but I have always heard that we shouldn’t be sad because something is over, we should be glad because it happened,” she told her classmates. “I’m glad that I have been blessed to spend the last four years with all of you. Remembering the events of senior year keeps me mindful of just how precious life is ... I look toward the future with that in mind and today we turn the page and begin our next chapters.”
Many individuals and businesses across the county have been participating in the annual Red Sand event recently.
The project is intended to spread awareness on the issues of human trafficking and the “vulnerabilities” which can cause people to “fall through the cracks” and become victims.
According to information from redsandproject.org the project is a participatory artwork that uses sidewalk interventions and earthwork installations to create opportunities for people to question, connect and take action against vulnerabilities that can lead to human trafficking and exploitation.
As part of the project, participants gather at sites around the state and pour red sand in sidewalk seams to draw attention to the human trafficking victims who fall through the cracks every day.
“This event is a way to start the conversation to educate our community and hopefully to lessen the risk and the vulnerabilities of our young people,” said Heather Rhymes, director of the Monroe County Health Council.
“I think that it is a great opportunity to capitalize on a global campaign and implement it on a local level.
“Oftentimes in rural communities like Monroe County we don’t think things like human trafficking or modern day slavery affects our area and that is not the case.”
She stated that young people are the most vulnerable to these types of crimes.
“Young people are identified as vulnerable and targeted by very well educated criminals who groom their victims over a long period of time and the victims won’t identify what is happening as trafficking,” Rhymes explained.
“Young people willingly get into vehicles of people they have met online thinking that their future is bright with that individual and believing that they are in good hands and that is all part of the scheme for the traffickers.”
According to Rhymes, promoting awareness is the only way to fight against the problem.
She noted that she was very surprised by the reception the event received in the county last year.
“We were blown away by the response here in our county,” Rhymes stated. “We thought we were just participating in a statewide campaign and it would be a great thing but we had no idea that our community, businesses and organizations in our county would respond in the way that they did.”
She believes everybody has a role to play to contribute to spreading awareness of the dangers of trafficking.
“It is not just the police, it’s not just non-profit organizations, even business owners can help educate the community,” she said. “I think that is what makes this project really neat is that anyone can be involved.”
Rhymes believes this event shows the willingness of the community to prevent any further abuse or abductions.
“When the community comes together and rallies around a common cause that we are all passionate about it is really powerful,” said Rhymes.