COVID-19

The Tennessee Department of Health is refusing to disclose the counties the COVID-19 coronavirus patients who have died are from.

TDH previously told the Murfreesboro Post that the county listings of cases indicate the county of residence of the patient. The Post is part of the Main Street Media of Tennessee network.

Once the fatality count reached six Friday, a reporter from the Post emailed TDH to ask if it would identify the counties of the victims. So far, only one health department, Metro Public Health Department in Nashville, has published information on fatalities – they have had two.

Shelley Walker, director of communications for TDH, replied to the Post’s request by emailing, “We are providing numbers of deaths at the state level only due to the risk of reidentification of those individuals.”

This decision follows an earlier move by TDH to report case volumes only by the region of the state (i.e., East, Middle or West Tennessee). A public uproar, including by multiple media outlets, led TDH to resume publishing the case volumes by county.

Dave Gould, publisher of the Post, asked Walker, “How would identifying their county risk identification? These counties have thousands and thousands of people. We keep hearing at the local level that people are not taking this seriously enough. Knowing that someone in their county died from the virus might wake them up.”

Walker replied: “Death is a greater risk factor than illness.

“We certainly do want all Tennesseans to take this situation seriously and take actions to protect themselves and others by reducing further spread of illness.

“Here are simple steps everyone can take:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water (or alcohol-based hand rub) for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes with your arm or a tissue
  • Clean and disinfect objects (e.g., cell phone, computer) and high touch surfaces regularly

“Some people are at higher risk of getting very sick from this illness, including older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease. It’s extra important for people in these groups to take actions to reduce their risk of getting sick with COVID-19:

  • Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others
  • When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick, limit close contact and wash your hands often
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible
  • Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel
  • During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed.”

The Post replied to Walker to point out that Metro Public Health Department not only reports fatalities from COVID-19, but also identifies the gender and age of the victims.

The Post asked, “How is it that a local health department can report more data than the state health department?”

Walker replied, “I could not speak to the policies of another organization.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told Walker in an email that, “At a time like this, we think the public has an overriding need to understand the location of COVID-19 deaths for public safety reasons. And the identification of any single person by the public by simply listing the place of death (county, or even city) is not only highly unlikely, it’s also somewhat a leap of imagination. I’m not even sure of the legal justification.

“Even in the smallest county in Tennessee (about 5,000 people), the ability to guess the identity of an individual or individuals among the 5,000 who might have died of COVID-19 based on the state’s release of county-by-county COVID-19 deaths is just not a logical conclusion. Even if you think that someone in that county might guess who among the 5,000 people in his own county were the victim, I cannot see how public safety should be sacrificed.

“State departments in other states, of course, have recognized the need to release deaths by location — sometimes cities, sometimes counties, sometimes to the point of identifying nursing homes.

“By hiding the location of deaths, there is more panic. Less factual information from our government is replaced with rumor. We don’t want that. We all need to understand this hideous virus better and put our hands on facts, not rumors — the public should not be excluded from information that the state has.

“I think this is an urgent issue.  I know the agency is under great strain, and many have probably been working around the clock.

“But would it be possible for me, or someone on my board, to discuss this issue with your commissioner, or perhaps an assistant commissioner?”

Fisher had not received a reply as of Saturday.

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