coronavirus

Tennessee updates COVID-19 reporting details

Gov. Bill Lee, left, announces a $200 million relief program for businesses affected by the state’s stay-at-home order for non-essential businesses at Arnold’s restaurant in Nashville on June 2, 2020. To his right are House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Rep. Pat Marsh, and Rep. Harold Love. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s adminstration is updating the way it discloses COVID-19 information. Here’s the full release::

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health is improving the format for sharing of data on COVID-19 to update how some metrics are calculated and reflect evolving knowledge of the pandemic. The new format will begin September 3, 2020 and reflect a change in how active cases are calculated and a correction in county of residence for some cases. In addition, TDH is adding new resources including data snapshots for each county and a Critical Indicators Report. TDH data on COVID-19 will be posted at 3 p.m. CDT Sept. 3 at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html as the new format is implemented.

“We’re pleased to be adding new reports to help support rapid public health actions in Tennessee communities,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “We also want to promote data transparency and help Tennesseans understand the reason case counts for some counties will change as we correct information based on their addresses.”

Reporting Inactive/Recovered Cases

Starting Sept. 3, TDH case count reports will include figures for “Inactive/Recovered” cases and will no longer include data for “Recovered” cases. “Inactive/Recovered” cases will include people who are 14 days or more beyond their illness onset date (or, for asymptomatic cases, their specimen collection date). This will more closely align with what is now understood about the infectious period of COVID-19, as recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show most patients with COVID-19 are no longer infectious after 10 days.

Previously, TDH considered a case recovered after a 21-day period.

Correcting County Locations

TDH is also correcting discrepancies in county location for about 1,700 cases, as the county to which they were originally assigned does not correspond correctly to their street addresses. This can occur in laboratory reports because some lab systems automatically assign county location based on the patient’s ZIP code, which may be incorrect if the ZIP code straddles county lines. These cases will be corrected all at once, which will result in case count changes for some counties. A solution is in place to automate this process in the future.

New Reports and Data Points

Starting Sept. 3, individual County Data Snapshots will provide information on case counts, hospitalizations, testing and more for each county at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data/county-data-snapshot.html. In addition, the new weekly Critical Indicators Report includes information to help stakeholders monitor trends in cases, symptoms, testing capabilities and health care system capacity. Find the Critical Indicators Report online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel- coronavirus/CriticalIndicatorReport.pdf. TDH is also adding data on current hospitalizations to daily information posted at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html.

Tennessee’s county health departments continue to offer COVID-19 testing at no charge to anyone who wishes to be tested. Find a map of health department locations and contact information online at www.tn.gov/content/tn/health/cedep/ncov/remote-assessment- sites.html. County health department testing sites will be closed Sept. 7 for Labor Day.

TDH is posting updated COVID-19 case numbers by 2 p.m. CDT each day at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html. Find additional information at www.tn.gov/governor/covid-19.html and www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

Teachers’ union warns new COVID-19 liability protection could backfire on schools

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says the new law enacted to provide legal protections to businesses and schools may have the opposite effect.

TEA President Beth Brown said in a release that the new law’s standards of gross negligence or willful misconduct could make schools liable if they buck federal guidelines and designate educators to be “essential workers.”  

 “TEA believes the few school districts designating educators as essential to avoid isolation protocols for staff directly exposed to a positive COVID case could meet the definition the ‘gross negligence’ and ‘willful misconduct’ outlined in the new liability law,” Brown said in a release. “CDC guidance on isolation after exposure limits spread and protects communities. Disregarding this guidance may have liability repercussions as well as unnecessarily jeopardize the health of students and educators and increase the likelihood of school closures and disrupted instruction.”

The full release follows.

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Lee extends executive orders through September

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has extended several executive orders through the end of September, including special provisions to allow governing bodies to meet electronically and for bars to sell alcohol to go.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 59 to extend certain, targeted provisions of Executive Order Nos. 36, 38, 49, 50, 54, and 55 through September 30, 2020 to facilitate the continued treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and wearing face coverings in public places, and protecting vulnerable populations.

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 60 and 61, which extend through September 30 provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, allowing for implementation of best practices developed during COVID-19 for providing live broadcasts of electronic meetings and safely conducting in-person transactions, respectively, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 59 extends previous provisions that:

  • Urge persons to wear a cloth face covering in places where in close proximity to others, while facilitating local decision-making concerning face covering requirements;
  • Urge social distancing and limit social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more persons, unless adequate social distancing can be maintained;
  • Limit nursing home and long-term-care facility visitation, while providing a framework for safe, limited visitation, and continue the closure of senior centers;
  • Provide that employers and businesses are expected to comply with the Governor’s Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for operating safely (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Provide that bars may only serve customers seated at appropriately spaced tables and must follow the Economic Recovery Group Guidelines (e.g., Tennessee Pledge) for restaurants (the 6 counties with locally run county health departments have authority to issue different directives on businesses/venues);
  • Continue access take-out alcohol sales to encourage carryout and delivery orders;
  • Allow broad access to telehealth services;
  • Increase opportunities for people to easily join the healthcare workforce;
  • Facilitate increased testing and health care capacity;
  • Extend deadlines and suspend certain in-person continuing education, gathering, or inspection requirements to avoid unnecessary person-to-person contact; and
  • Increase opportunities to work remotely where appropriate.

Executive Order No. 60, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 51, is extended through September 30 and allows governing bodies to meet electronically regarding essential business as long as they provide electronic access to the public and meet the safeguards established in that order to ensure openness and transparency. The order ensures that governmental entities are able to carry out essential business in a safe, transparent way without creating large gatherings in a confined space and endangering persons, particularly those at increased risk of suffering severe illness from COVID-19, while requiring that governing bodies transition toward adopting best practices developed during the pandemic, like providing real-time, live public access to electronic meetings, beginning October 1.

Executive Order No. 61, as previously extended by Executive Order No. 52, is extended through September 30, and allows for remote notarization and remote witnessing of documents, subject to compliance with certain procedures. The order ensures that persons, and particularly populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and persons with compromised immune systems or serious chronic medical conditions, can continue to engage in commerce and execute legal documents without requiring in-person contact while also making preparations to implement best practices for a safe return to in-person transactions beginning October 1.

Rep. Beck blames ‘highly risky’ special session for COVID-19 infection

Democratic state Rep. Bill Beck of Nashville is the latest House member to test positive for COVID-19. The lawmaker is blaming a “highly risky” special legislative session for his infection.

Lawmakers attend a House floor session in Nashville on March 16, 2020. Watching from the gallery are, from left, Reps. Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), Bob Freeman (D-Nashville), and Bill Beck (D-Nashville). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

“Unfortunately, staying safe is a group effort and the General Assembly as a whole failed to follow the medical advice of wearing a mask and social distancing while in Nashville for the special session,” Beck said in a statement Thursday. “I and many others said this special session was unnecessary and highly risky. We have been proven right on both accounts.”

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) disclosed she had tested positive after leaving the special session due to feeling ill. Others who have come down with COVID-19 include Reps. Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville), Kent Calfee (R-Kingston), and Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah). Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) said he did not attend the special session because he had been exposed to COVID-19, but refused to say whether he had tested positive. Former Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), now the mayor of his hometown, tested positive after serving as pastor of the day on the last day of the regular session in June.

Beck’s full statement follows.

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Judge orders state to include specific guidance on absentee ballot eligibility due to COVID-19

A judge has ordered Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office to include wording in absentee ballot application forms to make clear that people at greater risk from contracting COVID-19 are eligible to vote by mail.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s ruling Tuesday came after the state Supreme Court agreed to vacate the injunction she had imposed earlier when the state took what the chancellor called the “extraordinary step of a last-minute concession during oral arguments” that people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 (or those who care for people who do) had a valid reason to cast absentee ballots. Had the state taken this position earlier, Lyle said, the case would have been settled long before it reached the Supreme Court.

The high court’s ruling had instructed Hargett’s office to “ensure that appropriate guidance is provided to Tennessee registered voters” about the state’s new stance. While Hargett issued a press release that included reference to people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 being able to vote by mail, the new application form included no such information.

As such, Lyle ruled the application forms should now include the following excuses for people seeking to vote by mail:

I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

I am a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person (this includes caretakers for persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

Lyle also deemed that other materials issued by the state on the subject of absentee balloting — such as language highlighted at the bottom of the form offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for voter — to be “confusing and misleading.” But the chancellor said those details fell outside of her purview.

Hargett’s office was critical of the decision.

“It is ironic to us that the same Chancellor who chastised us for changing the form is now upset because we did not change the form,” Hargett spokeswoman Julia Bruck said in an emailed statement. “The Chancellor is legislating from the bench.”

Hedy Weinberg, the exeutive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, lauded the decision:

The court’s ruling today will ensure that people with special vulnerability to COVID-19 and their caretakers know exactly how to request mail-in ballots. The state’s delay in making this information clear is yet another example of voter suppression in Tennessee. Our state should be working to make it as easy as possible for people to vote, not creating obstacles at every turn and requiring a court order to fix them. We applaud the court for compelling the state to make Tennesseans’ voting rights clear and to do so quickly.

Read the ruling here.

Democrat Camper, Republican Hicks test positive for COVID-19

House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) and House Finance Subcommittee Chair Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) have tested positive for COVID-19.

Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) speaks tp reporters on Nov. 25, 2018, after her elected as House minority leader. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Camper felt ill during the start of last week’s special session, but an initial test did not detect the virus. She went home to Memphis as a precaution, where another test determined she had been infected. Camper is resting and recuperating at home, according to a statement from the House Democratic Caucus.

Hicks attended last week’s special session and was among several Republicans seen interacting with others without a mask. He works at Rogersville City School, which last week announced it would delay opening after two staffers tested positive for COVID-19 and while it awaited test results on a third.

The two positive tests follow the hospitalization this week of Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) due to COVID-19. Carter had skipped the special session along with former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who said he stayed home because had been exposed to the coronavirus. Casada wouldn’t tell The Tennessean whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.

Absentee voting: CDC’s high-risk conditions for COVID-19 include obesity, smoking, blood pressure

As part of the state’s concessions on absentee balloting to get the Tennessee Supreme Court to throw out an court order allowing anyone fearful of contracting COVID-19 to vote by mail, officials agreed that anyone with a “special vulnerability” to the virus would be allowed to cast an absentee ballot.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

According to guidance released by Secretary of State Tre Hargett on Wednesday, people with an “underlying illness, physical disability, or other health condition and who cannot appear at the polling place on Election Day” can obtain an absentee ballot. That also goes for people who care for someone who does.

The press release urges voters to “consult trusted guidance from medical experts and use common sense in determining whether they have a special vulnerability.” It goes on to suggest looking up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for more information.

According to the CDC website linked by Hargett’s office, the list of people with increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19 includes:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher)
  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus

The CDC says other conditions that might leave people at an increased risk are:

  • Asthma (moderate-to-severe)
  • Cerebrovascular disease (affects blood vessels and blood supply to the brain)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines
  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues)
  • Smoking
  • Thalassemia (a type of blood disorder)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus

The release from the Secretary of State’s office follows.

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More than 2,000 K-12 students test positive for COVID, but school-specific info to remain secret

More than 2,000 school-age children have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks, but state officials say they won’t release details of where the infections are occurring.

As of Tuesday, 2,099 students between ages 5 and 18 had tested positive, with Davidson County leading the way with 228 cases, followed by 209 in Hamilton County, 202 in Shelby County, 118 in Rutherford County, and 106 in Knox County.

Gov. Bill Lee’s Adminstration says federal privacy laws prevent the release of details about how many children have been infected in specific schools.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

“It’s a balance,” Lee said. “It’s really important that people in a school district can’t figure out which children individually have a case.”

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said there are schools around the state that have fewer than 200 students, where disclosing an outbreak would make it easy to identify who had become sick. It’s unclear how that reasoning would apply to larger schools.

According to WPLN-FM, it’s the fourth time the Lee administration has flip-flopped on making information about the pandemic public. In March, officials at first refused to share county-specific data about infections and deaths. That decision was later reversed. The same went for keeping details of infections at nursing homes secret, which was later dropped amid pushback from the public and the media.

Lee had initially said the school infection information would be kept from the public, only to reverse himself later before once again saying the details will be confidential.

Rep. Carter hospitalized with COVID-19

Rep Mike Carter is sworn in to the 111th General Assembly in Nashville on Jan. 8, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) has been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to an email sent to Republican House members by Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison.

“Our friend and colleague Mike Carter is in ICU at Erlanger with Covid,” Faison wrote to colleagues. “He is asking for prayers. Let’s lift him up y’all.”

Lawmakers were in Nashville last week for a special legislative session. Many did not wear masks. Carter did not attend.

Former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) skipped the special session because he had been exposed to COVID-19, The Tennessean reported. Casada wouldn’t disclose whether he had tested positive, but said he had no symptoms and felt fine.

“I was exposed to covid and did not want to run the risk of exposing anyone else,” he told the paper in a statement Saturday.

Rep. Kent Calfee (R-Kingston) tested positive for COVID-19 following the conclusion of the regular session in June, as did former Republican Rep. Kevin Brooks, the mayor of Cleveland, who was hospitalized with pneumonia on both lungs. Brooks had served as as the minister of the day for the final House floor session in June.

For real this time? Lawmakers adjourn

Speaker Cameron Sexton presides over a House floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The General Assembly concluded a three-day special session Wednesday evening to complete unfinished business dating back to its a blowup between House and Senate Republicans at the end of the regular session in June.

The agenda included Covid-19 lawsuit protections for businesses and schools, a telehealth bill, and a sweeping effort to crack down on protest that have raged around the Capitol for weeks.

According to The Tennessean:

Unlike when the legislature adjourned its regular session in June, when the legislative chambers traded barbs while House Democrats urged reforms on policing and race, internal fireworks during the special session were minimal. The most significant confrontations during the relatively pain-free special session came when protesters repeatedly blocked lawmakers’ access out of their office building. 

The Daily Mempian reported:

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, said she wants to make sure it doesn’t protect “bad actors” that might put up signs prohibiting masks or refuse to clean their facilities […] Bell contended those types of cases would be decided in court if a business is “grossly negligent” by refusing to follow safety guidelines. He argued, nevertheless, the legislation would offer protection to large businesses statewide, including Amazon and Nissan, as well as a bakery in tiny Eagleville and schools.

And the AP summed it up as follows:

Efforts to increase law enforcement oversight were rebuffed by the GOP-dominant Statehouse. Instead, the majority white General Assembly chose to focus their attention on the ongoing protests that have been led by mostly young Black activists outside the Capitol, who have been calling for racial justice reforms for the past two months.