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Tennessee COVID-19 location omission sparks questions

Associated Press • Mar 10, 2020 at 2:35 PM

NASHVILLE — Tennessee is limiting what information it releases about coronavirus cases, becoming an outlier compared to most other states and sparking alarm among some officials worried the move will only stir public mistrust.

Disagreement over the policy emerged this week as Tennessee’s Department of Health announced that it will no longer identify the county of where a new COVID-19 case is confirmed.

The Tennessee Department of Health said the goal is to protect patient privacy. But critics warn that the move leaves the public in the dark about areas they may want to avoid.

“I fully acknowledge and understand that everybody wants to know the county because everybody wants to try to determine their own risk,” said Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey. “That’s understandable. But we also have to keep in mind that we’re talking about patients here.”

Piercey added that Tennessee’s six metropolitan areas have separate jurisdictions from the state, which would allow them to identify patients and release county information.

Gov. Bill Lee called the situation “difficult,” but ultimately supported the department’s decision.

“Individually, health departments in our major cities will announce when they have cases, which will indicate counties,” Lee told reporters Tuesday. “But beyond that, we’re not releasing counties primarily because of the issue with patient privacy laws.”

Lee did not specify which laws prevent the department from disclosing county information. The health department did not respond to requests to provide policies or statutes that allow the state to withhold coronavirus case location.

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.

As of Tuesday, Tennessee’s total cases had bumped up to six and the department declined to note the locations for three of them.

Compared to most other states tracking coronavirus cases, Tennessee is just one of a handful states not releasing details about the location.

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, was similar to Tennessee in withholding 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.”

Likewise, Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services is only releasing statewide data, but a spokeswoman said 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 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. “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 on Monday 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, noting that governments providing less information can only fuel rumors and “public hysteria.”

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.”

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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