It's too bad our local, state and federal health officials — and president — can't figure out how to act on the threats of coronavirus as quickly as Tennessee Attorney Gen. Herbert Slatery, who over the weekend issued an order to two Hixson brothers to cease their reported buying and selling products like hand sanitizer, wipes and masks at profiteering prices. Slatery also ordered a price-gouging investigation, according to statement from his Nashville office.
On the other hand, on display Friday and the weekend Chattanooga's major hospitals declined to answer questions about coronavirus testing, saying instead through a statement from the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society that our three local hospitals "are working to develop more community testing sites."
Think of it as the 2020 coronavirus version of "Take two aspirin and call me Monday."
Meanwhile, Chattanoogans — reeling from learning Friday that an Episcopal rector here tested positive for COVID-19 after interacting with hundreds of local residents — were also finding local store shelves bare of hand sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper and paper towels.
Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga, fell ill after attending the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes in Louisville, Kentucky, between Feb. 19 and 22. Not knowing he had been exposed to the virus, he continued about his normal church duties and activities — conducting a funeral, a wedding , and a memorial service for 800 members of the Chattanooga Bar Association. He also administered three different St. Paul's communion services, attended a church lecture series and took part in a multi-church Bible study that involved members of at least two other churches, St. Paul AME Church and Olivet Baptist Church.
In the midst of all that, he found himself under the weather with what he thought was a cold and sinus infection that developed into pneumonia around March 1, he said in a March 7 email to church members. He removed himself from church services that weekend and then was tested for COVID-19 after learning others at the Louisville conference had fallen ill and tested positive for the virus.
Even after that news, our hospitals didn't jump to talk about testing. But as for the Tennessee's attorney general, Slatery didn't even need a full 24 hours to get moving.
The brothers in Hixson, Matt and Noah Colvin, were featured in an online New York Times story Saturday, talking about how they expanded their online home business of anticipating trends, buying things cheap and selling them at a nifty profit later. Just after 9 p.m. Saturday, Slatery released a new statement announcing the stop and desist order.
The brothers had scooped up 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer (along with antiseptic wipes and medical face masks) on a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and Kentucky in the first few days of March, following the first coronavirus death in the United States. The news story quoted them saying they had recently sold some of the sanitizer online "for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher" than what brother Matt paid for them.
But then Amazon pulled the Colvins' listings, along with those of other suspected virus profiteers. After The Times story appeared online Saturday (and in the print version of the New York paper on Sunday), the Chattanooga Times Free Press wrote a story noting the brothers were getting death threats. Adding to the Colvins' shock, they received Slatery's stop and desist order.
These are strange times, and they are likely, unfortunately, to get stranger.
Our local officials — like our leaders everywhere — must up their game. Especially our health officials.
It should have been our local hospitals and Hamilton County Health Department last week who pioneered drive-through COVID-19 testing processes like those initiated weeks and days ago in foreign countries and other states.
Instead, only the Galen Medical Group — the largest independent medical practice in Chattanooga — took swift action to start a drive-through process for Galen patients. Early last week, Galen began implementing a "very thorough and detailed triage procedure" for sampling based on CDC guidelines and referrals from Galen doctors, said Galen practice administration Charlie Lathram. Lathram also said Galen is willing to talk with other providers and walk them through how to take their own similar approaches.
The Times Free Press reported last week: "It's unclear whether the Erlanger, Memorial or Parkridge facilities and physician practices have sampling strategies similar to Galen."
Importantly, it's not unclear because we didn't ask them. We did. Individually and with formal requests. They just didn't answer, opting instead for the statement issued Friday by the medical society.
And, no, they can't completely point the finger back to the president or the state. If that were the case, Galen could not have taken action.
Chattanooga and Hamilton County health leaders need urgency, not a take-two-aspirin approach. And they need it yesterday.