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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Healthcare worker Kristen Pennington in November 2020 looks through a Hamilton County resident's paperwork before bagging up their COVID-19 test provided by the non-profit organizations Alleo and CEMPA at Hospice of Chattanooga.

It wasn't enough that Tennessee's right-wing and wrongheaded leadership tried at every turn to handicap practical preventions for COVID-19, the increasingly insidious virus that even in the brief periods when it has waned has changed our lives.

It wasn't enough that we're at the bottom of the nation for vaccinations and at or near the top for per capita average cases, so now even as we start a new year with the omicron variant blazing a record surge of cases across the state and nation, the Tennessee Department of Health is cutting back on reporting COVID cases. And not just COVID cases, but also COVID hospitalizations and COVID deaths — in short, the state is cutting back its reporting of all that data. It will be reported now just once a week rather than daily.

Never mind that business, school, government and individual decisions for now the second year can depend on that daily reporting. It affected and will still affect planning about staying home, masking up, moving to virtual learning, moving to work at home, even vaccinating and determining who can be vaccinated.

But now even the Tennessee Health Department will ape the attitude of our governor and lawmakers who in the fall moved to — as much as they could — forbid mask and vaccine requirements and even to forbid the state medical board from disciplining medical practitioners from spreading COVID misinformation.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said the decision to report COVID-19 data weekly instead of daily is an effort to "normalize" monitoring of the pandemic with the department's pre-pandemic priorities, such as addressing an all-time high level of drug overdose deaths in the state.

"It's exceedingly clear there's not going to be a date in time where [COVID-19] goes away or where we don't have to worry about this or work on this for quite some time in the future. I know we all have been praying that there is, but it's not in the foreseeable future. So the impetus is on us to make sure we operationalize this, whether that's testing or vaccine, and not have a separate operation for COVID and a separate operation for typical operations. We need to normalize this into our daily routine," Piercey said last week.

Funny. In our dictionary, normalizing work does not mean eliminating or sloughing off work.

Asked if the reduced frequency of data reporting will leave state and local policymakers "flying blind" just as a highly contagious new strain of the coronavirus takes hold, Piercey said, "it shouldn't change a single thing that you do" about COVID-19 safety measures such as getting vaccinated, isolating when sick and wearing a face covering.

"Whether cases today are 2,200 or 2,900 — it shouldn't change your day-to-day actions at all," she said.

Excuse us. Doesn't it send a false message that the virus is not important or as worrisome as it once was? What pesky, record omicron surge?

Or maybe there is this consideration: "Normalize" away the escape hatch for local mandates that was carved at the last minute into the General Assembly's late-October special session omnibus COVID legislation. The act explicitly bars localities from implementing mask mandates unless local COVID-19 caseloads skyrocket.

Before a short, 14-day mask mandate can be called, the governor must declare a state of emergency and the county in question must record at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. Hello? Can we say daily reporting? What daily reporting? (To Hamilton County's credit, local health department spokesman Holden Young told the TFP the local department does not plan to change the frequency of its COVID-19 data reporting at this time.)

The state health department also last week announced it will change the way it reports test positivity rates. Tennessee will no longer include results from rapid antigen tests — the type of tests normally used at home. Piercey said that is because so few home tests get reported to the department that the positivity metric is becoming grossly inaccurate.

"The tests that are reported to us are a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall. So, it really is irrelevant if the number today is 300 or 400 higher than yesterday or lower than yesterday. What we want to look at is trends over time, and weekly reporting allows us to do that, just like we do with flu," Piercey said, noting that daily reporting is "not a sustainable way to do it in perpetuity. We are going to be transitioning into recording data like we report other conditions."

So, you know — trying harder to send the right message, to be louder than the governor and lawmakers and to get good numbers is tough.

Instead, let's just give up.

If we pretend this virus is not as bad as it is and if we stop talking about it and stop reporting it — well, we'll all just forget about it and it will go away, right?

We can go on acting like we care about something else — like drug overdose deaths that we never, ever mention until there's something else we can blame for not mentioning it.

It's embarrassing to be a Tennessean these days.

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