Tennessee Gov. Lee's administration says response to coronavirus appropriate despite Democratic criticism

Hand sanitizer is sold out at a grocery store Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn., because of concerns of coronavirus in the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Hand sanitizer is sold out at a grocery store Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn., because of concerns of coronavirus in the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - As the number of Tennesseans infected with the coronavirus rose from three to four on Monday, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the state's response has been appropriate despite charges from a top state House Democrat that Republican Gov. Bill Lee's administration isn't being transparent enough.

Piercey said during the first meeting of Lee's Coronavirus Task Force that all four patients are "being taken care of and working with their local and metro health departments on contact tracing," a key element of identifying people who had come into contact with those who have the COVID-19 infection to help stem further spread of the virus.

At least 666 people in 36 states have tested positive and at least 26 have died, according to the New York Times.

"They're all appropriately isolated and they're all aware of their diagnoses," said Piercey, noting a total of 49 people have been tested in Tennessee with four positive results. No one in the state has died.

The case announced Monday involved a Middle Tennessee woman. Unlike last week's three confirmed cases in which the home counties of infected people, but not their names, were released for Williamson County, Metro Nashville and Shelby County, the home county of the latest person was not released.

Nor will it be, Piercey said, noting information about 89 non-metropolitan counties will not be released because many are smaller counties and patient privacy is at a premium. The Middle Tennessee grand division of the state has 41 counties.

She said the state now has at least 165 COVID-19 test kits, up from 85 last week. And with commercialized tests soon coming out, Piercey said, there will be more test kits.

The administration has come under fire for, among other things, not having updated its website from last week to reflect the number of people diagnosed with the virus rising from one to three.

Asked by reporters whether Lee will declare a state of emergency in Tennessee - some states have - Piercey said, "obviously that is on his radar and he is working through that. And right now we're working towards what is the threshold to declare that. We don't feel like we're there yet."

Earlier Monday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville blasted the Lee administration's response to the outbreak, which began in China and has sickened at least 112,000 people and killed 3,900 since the start of January, according to NBC News, the World Health Organization and other figures. More than 58,000 people have recovered.

Stewart charged the Lee administration isn't being transparent enough and seems to have no comprehensive plan in place to address the emergency.

"There's grave concern, I express this for myself, that the commissioner of health and the administration are not being transparent, they apparently do not have a comprehensive plan and they're not responding to this health care emergency in a way that is consistent with the threat to the state," he told reporters.

Calling the virus a "severe threat as we've seen to every man, woman and child in this state," Stewart said, "we need to treat it as the emergency that it is."

Stewart, who attended the Task Force meeting, later said, "did anyone hear a straight answer in that entire proceeding? I mean, they were asked about the people who came in on the plane with this [Williamson County] person. A statement was made they didn't seem very sick at the time or they didn't have symptoms."

But Stewart said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website "specifically says what most health care providers have been telling me for weeks, which is that it's not at all clear that only symptomatic people can transfer this disease."

It was "completely at odds with the CDC guidance. If we're not even getting straightforward statements in a task force meeting, what's going on behind the scenes?" he asked.

Earlier Monday, state health department officials announced a fourth case of coronavirus had occurred in "Middle Tennessee" involving a middle-age woman.

The mayors of Metro Nashville and Shelby County, who run their own health departments, announced last week that they each had one case. Lee announced the first case last week. It involved a Williamson County man who had traveled to Massachusetts.

Stewart pointed to the health department's website, which the lawmaker said still states there's only "one coronavirus victim in the state of Tennessee. Well, we all know that's not true. We cannot have a situation with an emerging emergency in which the only information a citizen can get is completely out of date."

Stewart said that, under pressure from Democrats, the department "finally issued a statement about how people should get tested ... We're all inundated with calls by citizens, health care providers, asking us questions about how to deal with this situation and we're not getting the guidance we need."

The department, Stewart said, tweeted telephone numbers people can call to get access to COVID-19 testing seven days a week.

"Try calling this number. We called it five times today and you get a busy signal every time," he said. "Where [are] citizens supposed to be tested? We called over 20 departments of health this morning. And you get completely different responses."

Piercey said the state's coronavirus hotline is operated under contract through the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. She acknowledged a "handful" of people are answering calls and said the state plans to boost the number of people fielding calls, although the department did not immediately provide numbers.

After the Coronavirus Task Force meeting, Lee, who didn't attend, tweeted that top state health officials, along with health care providers, business groups and others, had met to "enhance our strong coordinated efforts to prevent, identity, and treat potential cases of COVID-19. We are working closely with the CDC to monitor developments & keep Tennesseans safe."

But Stewart said there is still a hodge-podge response, noting some counties such as Rutherford County "say they don't provide any testing. ... Other counties tell you to go to another. Clearly the Department of Health for the state of Tennessee is not coordinating with local health departments to develop a comprehensive, consistent plan. You cannot have 20 different responses."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher.

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