Tennessee health officials announced late Tuesday that they will release the county where new coronavirus cases are confirmed in the state, reversing a previous policy to withhold that information based on privacy concerns.
As of Tuesday, Tennessee's total coronavirus cases had bumped up to seven, and Tennessee's Department of Health declined to note the locations for three of them. The latest announcement revealed that one of those cases is in Sullivan County and two of those cases are from Williamson County.
"TDH 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," Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said in a news release announcing the new protocol. "While the department's standard protocol for outbreaks is to announce information by region, we understand COVID-19 is an evolving situation presenting unique concerns for our communities."
The change comes a day after a top state House Democrat criticized Republican Gov. Bill Lee's administration over lack of transparency in its response to coronavirus. On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Tennessee's refusal to release county-level information made the state "an outlier compared to most other states" and "some officials worried the move will only stir public mistrust."
Piercey said on Tuesday that she acknowledged those concerns, but at the time patient privacy concerns would take precedence.
Tennessee's six metropolitan areas have separate jurisdictions from the state, which would have allowed them to identify patients and release county information despite the state's earlier decision.
Hamilton County health officials had said it would be announced if there was a confirmed COVID-19 case in Hamilton.
Last week, Gov. Bill 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, but did not initially reveal the latest three cases.
In response, Tennessee state Sen. Jeff Yarbro argued "the public benefits from more information.
"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."
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.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.