Coronavirus Continues to Ravage Tennessee

Workers administer tests at a drive-through COVID-19 testing location Saturday, April 18, 2020, in Franklin, Tenn. An expanded testing effort launched in Tennessee Saturday includes workers from the Tennessee National Guard at 15 drive-through testing sites across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – COVID-19 testing from mid-August to early December did little to stop a tidal wave of coronavirus from sweeping across Tennessee. By Christmas, Tennessee had the most infections per capita in the U.S. and on the national map the state was colored a deep red. It still is red.

Known cases are going up. The average number of new cases in Tennessee reached 6,166 January 2, 2021, a 38 percent increase from the day before. Since January 2020, at least 1 in 12 people who live in Tennessee have been infected, and at least 1 in 989 have died, according to the New York Times.

Last week Tennessee’s per capita infections were #2 in the U.S. at 90.3 per 100,000, just behind CA. Hospitalizations on Jan. 3, were 3,304, a 7% increase in the last 14 days. The total number of hospitalizations in the U.S. was 123,614. Tennessee’s outsized share of that national total equals 3%. About half of the ICU beds in Tennessee are filled with COVID patients. Just 181 of the state’s 2,050 ICU beds are available (9%).

On January 3, Tennessee ranked 11th in COVID-19 deaths, 1.1 deaths per 100,000. Tennessee was 6th in hospitalizations per 100,000 at 51, an increase of 12% from last week.

These bleak numbers are reflected in Tennessee Dept. of Health statistics. Medical experts say that testing with turnaround times of 48 hours or less can enable contact tracers to isolate infections, quarantine exposed people, and keep the virus from spreading. But beyond 48 hours, tracing is essentially useless. When infections increase by community spread, as is happening in Tennessee, social distancing and wearing masks, by themselves, cannot stop the pandemic. And they haven’t.

There are 30-some laboratories that do COVID-19 testing in Tennessee. Some are inside hospitals like St Jude’s in Memphis or Vanderbilt in Nashville. Some are big national testing companies like ARUP, Quest, Labcorp, and Pathgroup. Others are smaller regional labs like Gravity, Integrity, and Gamma. There are state labs in Nashville and Knoxville.

A Tribune analysis of turnaround test times of more than 2 days in recent months indicates that is one reason why COVID-19 has run amok in Tennessee.

  • On August 16, 11 out of 30 labs had average 7-day turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 20 out of 30 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 16-30 days.
  • On August 23, 8 out of 29 labs had average 7-day turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 21 out of 29 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 11-27.5 days.
  • On August 27, 8 out of 29 labs had average 7-day turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 21 out of 29 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 11-29 days.
  • On August 31, 8 out of 30 labs had average 7-day turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 20 out of 30 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 9-30 days.
  • On September 16, 8 out of 29 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 20 out of 29 labs had a14-day maximum turnaround time between 10-30.5 days.
  • On October 16, 7 out of 31 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 16 of 31 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 10-30 days.
  • On October 24, 4 of 31 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 20 or 31 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 10.3-29 days.
  • On November 1, 5 of 31 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 19 of 31 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 12-30 days.
  • On November 17, 9 of 31 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 22 of 31 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 10.5-30 days
  • On November 25, 9 of 29 labs had average turnaround times greater than 2 days. And 18 of 29 labs had a 14-day maximum turnaround time between 11-30 days.

About one third of labs do not meet the 2-day turnaround time on any given day and two thirds have a max 14-day turnaround time somewhere between 10 and 30 days.

Lack of supplies and reagent chemicals to detect the virus in diagnostic equipment have been cited as reasons for why testing has not gone well in Tennessee. The evidence suggests COVID-19 testing has been a failure in Tennessee. The grim number of deaths, infections, and hospitalizations indicate a widespread failure to stem the pandemic in Tennessee.

The hodgepodge network of labs in Tennessee has made it difficult for the Tennessee Dept. of Health to coordinate and control COVID-19 testing and the same is true in other states. The U.S. has about one quarter of all COVID infections and 17% of deaths worldwide. The fault lies squarely on President Trump for failing to initiate a national federal response to the coronavirus. Gov. Bill Lee deserves some of the blame for Tennessee’s situation because masks work and he hasn’t mandated them.

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