Officials Can’t Control the Virus so They Control Information Instead

Fourth in a series tracking how the nation, the state, and Nashville responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — On March 8, Mayor John Cooper announced Nashville’s first case of COVID-19. Dr. Michael Caldwell, Dr. Alex Jahangir, and Dr. John Dunn, the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) State Epidemiologist joined him. 

A month earlier, the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) distributed 160,000 COVID-19 tests. Only about 4,000 were ever used because they gave inconclusive results. It took weeks to sort out and private labs didn’t deliver their own tests until mid-April.

If Dunn knew the CDC tests were no good he didn’t tell reporters at that press conference. Instead, he gave prescriptive advice about how to protect yourself from the virus: keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your coughs. He did not respond to our requests for an interview. He hasn’t been seen at any COVID-19 briefings since early March. 

On March 13, Cooper announced the creation of a coronavirus task force . “We have the resources to meet this new challenge. Nashville is America’s healthcare capital. Our city has some of the most brilliant medical minds anywhere and Metro is working with our partners to make sure that our response plan is comprehensive,” Cooper said. 

Nashville is the private healthcare capital of the country. But we are facing a public health crisis. Health officials relied on health insurance and the established networks of medical providers to cope with the pandemic. They should have known that would never work. A shortage of tests was another huge problem. 

At that same press conference the Tribune asked the Task Force Chair, Dr. Alex Jahangir, how many coronavirus test kits Metro had on hand. “The short answer is, we are still figuring that out,” he said.

“We want to know if people can get tested and if they will be free,” the Tribune asked. Jahangir advised people to consult their doctor if they felt sick. Nashville television stations aired the testy exchange with Jahangir. But the question period was deleted in the Metro YouTube video of that press conference. 

Two days later Cooper announced bars on Lower Broadway would close and restaurants would be limited to 50 % of capacity.

From the White House, to the Old Supreme Court Chamber in Tennessee’s State Capitol, to Mayor John Cooper’s almost daily online COVID-19 briefings, elected officials have done a good job controlling information about the pandemic while failing to stop its spread.

Last week, Shelley Walker, communications director of TN Department of Health, declined to make John Dunn, the state epidemiologist, available for an interview (again). “We can’t predict the future,” she said.

The Tribune made public records requests and press inquiries to Governor Lee’s office, the COVID-19 Unified Command, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), and the Tennessee Department of Health. 

Between January and mid-March, Lee spoke with the president on a number of occasions, either privately or on conference calls with other Republican governors. 

We wanted to know if during those conversations the subject of CDC’s bungled tests came up and if anyone suggested getting tests from the World Health Organization (WHO) or simply buying them from any of the labs producing tests for WHO.

We asked Lee’s office for an interview. If he had to do it all over again, would he take the initiative and purchase tests six weeks sooner from private labs, which Tennessee eventually did anyway? We did not receive a reply.

COVID press briefings give the basic facts officials want the public to know. They are delivered with a serious tone but suggest everything will get better if we all just take personal responsibility for good hygiene, wear masks in public, and don’t go to any wild parties. 

Trump insisted on opening up the economy with disastrous results. So did Lee. Trump abdicated responsibility by leaving it up to the states to deal with the pandemic which rages out of control. (See How Did Things Get So Bad? Tennessee Tribune, July 21, 2020) 

In Lee’s case, he’s let hospitals deal with maintaining capacity for COVID victims while doubling down on keeping the economy open—which has driven more people into ICUs. Last week he said ordering everyone to wear masks in public wouldn’t work. It has in many countries, so Lee’s reasoning is suspect. 

Lee also said children need a good education, child abuse can’t be reported by teachers if kids aren’t in school, and a lot of other nonsense when you consider what he didn’t say: sure, some kids will get infected and bring it home to their families, and maybe people will die but that’s just too bad.

Kids need to be in school so their parents can go back to work. That’s Lee’s bottom line. The question is: at what cost? Since the first outbreak in January, reporters have been telling stories about the “expendables”—the elderly in nursing homes, prisoners, people with underlying health conditions, essential workers, and first responders. 

Tennessee eventually tested hot spots and clusters of infections in nursing homes. But it’s been too little too late for the 978 Tennesseans who have perished from the disease. Latino populations in Chattanooga and Nashville have high infection rates.

State health officials didn’t start posting COVID-19 information in Spanish until July 22.

Metro has made mistakes, too. Consider that early on you couldn’t get tested unless you had symptoms and went first to your doctor for a referral. About 759,000 Tennesseans have no health insurance. And even more don’t have a primary care provider. Going to a private doctor or hospital for a test can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000. Until mid-April when free drive-by tests became available, you had to pay. So many people simply didn’t get tested and went to work infected. Many didn’t even know it.

You could blame it on people not wearing masks or not staying six feet apart but Governor Lee and Republican lawmakers have refused to expand Medicaid and the heat maps of Nashville show the result. (see Heat Map)

Most of the infections are located in Southeast Nashville around Antioch. The working poor live in Antioch including lots of essential workers and construction workers who can’t afford not to go to work. So they do. 

Metro has set up free COVID testing sites in Antioch. Belatedly, Metro health officials are testing people they didn’t consider when the pandemic first hit. They relied on a healthcare system that the virus exploited predictably and relentlessly.

Meanwhile, local health officials were taking instructions from state health officials who took theirs from the CDC. And the CDC takes its orders from the President. Muddleheaded officials didn’t grasp the weakness of an early response that relied on private insurance to stop a plague like COVID-19. Just like “The Good Soldier Schweik,” they just followed orders.

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