In reversal, Tennessee to provide COVID-19 case locations
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In a surprise reversal, Tennessee's top health agency announced Tuesday that it will provide locations for where coronavirus cases had been confirmed after initially refusing to do so.
"(The department) will release counties of residence for all confirmed cases, but will not include further identifying factors like age or gender as we balance transparency with our obligation to lawfully protect patient privacy,“ said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey in an evening statement.
The agency has since provided county data for each coronavirus case, showing that four cases have been in Williamson County — a fact that had previously been kept hidden from the public.
Three other cases have been confirmed in Shelby, Davidson and Sullivan counties.
The health department's original stance to keep location data hidden from the public had sparked alarm among some officials worried the move would only stir public mistrust.
The health department argued it was doing so to protect patient privacy. But critics warned that the move would put the public in the dark about areas they may want to avoid.
Gov. Bill Lee had also come out in support of Piercey's decision early Tuesday.
However, as criticism grew, the department eventually switched course later that day.
Neither Lee nor the department had been able to identify which policies or statutes that allowed the state to withhold coronavirus locations.
Just last week, Lee and state health officials included the location when the first case was announced — arguing they were doing so because the state had just experienced a catastrophic tornado and wanted to alleviate confusion about the situation.
The state later confirmed the counties when the second and third cases were reported.
The Associated Press reviewed more than 30 state-issued health websites dedicated to informing the public about the coronavirus and found that only a handful did not indicate where the COVID-case was discovered.
For example, Georgia releases county information for both confirmed and suspected coronavirus cases.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has withheld details about location. On Feb. 5, Wisconsin's health officials said they were only publicizing that a patient with a confirmed case was an adult and isolated at home “out of respect for the privacy of the patient and their household."
Nevada's Department of Health and Human Services is only releasing statewide data, but a spokeswoman said Tuesday the public can go to their local health authority for more information.
But the public benefits from more information, according to Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who originally objected to withholding locations.
“The state needs to err on the side of transparency right now. And should be trying to build trust,” the Democrat from Nashville tweeted on Monday. “Unless there is a compelling public health rationale, and none was cited, the Department should reverse this decision.”
Democratic lawmakers have criticized Tennessee's coronavirus response, holding a news conference earlier in the week to call for more transparency from the state on how it is handling the situation.
“They do not apparently have a comprehensive plan. We need to treat it as the emergency that it is,” said House Minority Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, also a Nashville Democrat.
The Tennessee Coalition of Open Government also questioned the Department of Health's decision, but later applauded the agency for choosing to shine more transparency on the situation.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.”
Reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report from Nashville.