Hancock County made national news on May 17 after holding steady for a little over a week as the last county in Tennessee without any COVID-19 cases.
Now, all 95 counties in the state have at least one recorded case. No information about the individual patient has been released in order to protect his or her privacy.
“I wish we could have gone longer”
“There was an article that was shared in the USA Today about our county, and within 24 hours, we had our first case,” Hancock County EMA Director David Smith said.
He laughed and added, “I thought, ‘well, we should have just been quiet.’ But, as long as the test takes to get results, the patient may have been tested before the news interview was even done.’”
When asked why he thought Hancock County was able to go so long without any cases, Smith said, “A lot of it is just the fact that we have a lower population and are in a fairly secluded area.”
In fact, according to the United States Census Bureau, only 6,549 people resided within the county in 2018.
As far as the number of people tested, Smith also noted that Hancock County’s number naturally is smaller than that of other counties simply because of their small population.
“I’m glad we went this long without a case—I just wish we could have gone longer,” he said. “I would have liked to be the only county that never had a case.”
Though the Review/Eagle reached out to the Tennessee Department of Health on why Hancock County may have gone so long with no COVID-19 cases, they were not able to give a definitive answer.
“We don’t know scientifically why this is the case, and we’re not able to speculate on that,” Health Council Coordinator Jayne Harper said.
Few coming in; many going out
The county’s rural location and lack of tourists may have contributed to its lack of COVID-19 cases.
“Even in Hamblen County, for example, it might look like a small county, but it’s got two major four-lanes passing through it,” Smith said. “So, how many people pass through there that are not from that area? That’s the same for Hawkins or Knox Counties—people who are not from the area might pass through and stop at restaurants of convenience stores. We don’t have that in Hancock County. It’s pretty much just our local people in the area. I heard someone say once, ‘Nobody finds us by accident. They have to come looking for us.’”
However, Smith noted that, though there are few passers-by visiting Hancock County, many of its citizens work outside of the county. Thus, if these workers were deemed ‘essential’ and required to work during the pandemic, they were still traveling into other counties and back.
“You hear a lot of people say, ‘they’re back in the hills, and nobody ever goes over there,’” Smith said. “That may be true, but a lot of our people go other places. Maybe three quarters of our working population work outside of this county.”
“Everybody tried to follow state recommendations”
“Everybody tried to follow the recommendations from the state,” Smith said. “A lot of businesses limited the number of people who could be in at once, put up screens and the workers wear masks. The restaurants were only serving curbside and drive-thru until that order was lifted. It was pretty much the same with the government offices, too. But we don’t even have many businesses here—there’s only about four restaurants, a couple of dollar stores and one grocery store. Everybody tried to do what they could.”
He also noted that there have been several testing sites set up throughout the county during the pandemic.
“The opportunity to be tested has been there,” he said. “But, a lot of people here think ‘if I’m not feeling sick, I’m not going around people who have had to deal with sick people.’ I have several elderly people in my family, and, during flu season, their doctor will tell them, ‘Don’t come down here to the office if you’re just coming for a checkup. You don’t want to catch something here.’ I think that’s part of the reason our testing numbers are lower than some other counties.”
“The people have always been resilient”
The Review/Eagle was unable to speak with Hancock Co. Mayor Thomas Harrison before press time, but he has said in published reports that he feels the resiliency of Hancock County’s people along with divine blessing has kept the area free of COVID-19 for this long.
“Our people have always been resilient,” Harrison said. “We’ve had to be when you live as rural as we are. Though the climate has changed, snows used to stop school for maybe 30 days. So, people were prepared with their food supplies. They had canned beans and had put up their dried goods and meat. They were able to sustain without having to come to town. We’ve still got enough of our older generation that, through COVID-19, a lot of them were prepared.”
He went on to add that the people of Hancock County “have good, common sense” and are “heavily churched”—other explanations he offered for the lack of COVID-19 up to this point.
“I can’t help but think that the good Lord is a whole lot of the reason for that,” he said in published reports. “The dedication and the love for the Lord that Hancock County has is the reason we’ve had such good luck with COVID-19.”