Rhea County’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 jumped from 13 to 188 over a 24-hour period on Thursday, according to local officials and the Tennessee Department of Health.

Rhea County Executive George Thacker warned county residents on Wednesday that the number of cases in Rhea County was likely to significantly increase heading into the Memorial Day holiday.

“I know this is Memorial Day weekend, and you’re going to have to be careful because these numbers have really jumped up,” Thacker said. “I think we need to be cautious and wear protection and go back to washing your hands.”

Rhea Medical Center’s Dr. Craig Swafford said in a post on social media that many of the new cases stem from an outbreak among migrant farm workers in the area.

“A large number of migrant workers have tested positive for the virus. We have communicated as the local hospital and the county government with this particular farm and have been assured that these folks have been isolated and will remain so,” Swafford said. “We are working to try and make sure that they have everything they need and will not be exposing other folks in our community.”

Additionally, Swafford said there had also been one confirmed case of COVID-19 at La-Z-Boy, as well as one confirmed case in a physician working at Life Care Center of Rhea County.

“There has been at least one confirmed case at La-Z-Boy, and that person is recovering after spending two days in ICU and appears much better. Contact tracing has been done within the factory and additional testing has been recommended and steps have been taken to clean the workspace and minimize any additional exposure there and additional testing has been offered,” Swafford said. “Anyone at high risk of exposure will not be allowed to work for at least 14 days and your local health care professionals have recommended those people have a negative test before they are allowed to return to work.

Swafford said that there was also a confirmed case with a physician at a local nursing home.

“This physician was wearing personal protective equipment,” Swafford said. “Anyone that was exposed to the physician has been identified, and additional testing has been recommended for residents and employees that came in contact with the physician.”

The physician is now quarantined, Swafford said, and will not return to work for an extended period of time.

He said that local health officials have recommended that the physician be tested and have a negative test before they are allowed to resume their duties.

With the sudden increase in confirmed cases, Thacker said he is recommending that county residents wear masks when in public and continue social distancing measures.

“If you’re going to go out now knowing that we’ve got these numbers here, please, try to wear a mask,” Thacker said. “I think it’s so important now to wear a mask.”

After Thursday’s 1,700 percent increase in COVID-19 cases in Rhea County, the county ranks among the top 20 counties in the state with the most COVID-19 cases. The county spent three months with one of the fewest number of cases in the state.

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