public radio

How Knoxville public radio got the White House coronavirus report Gov. Lee didn’t want to release

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)

Tennessee ranked fourth worst in the country for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000, according to a White House report that Gov. Bill Lee didn’t want to release to the public. The report was obtained under public records laws by a Knoxville public radio station.

The report took a circuitous path toward becoming public. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington reported about it’s existence last week, and the TNJ: On the Hill blog posted about the finding that Tennessee had slid into the “red zone” of 24 states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led another reporter to ask the governor about the report (and the related refusal to make it public) during his weekly press conference.

Lee responded that not all the of the details in the White House report are up to date and that he wanted to limited the sources of information about the outbreak.

“Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.

While the Lee administration didn’t want to share the White House report with the media, it did send copies to health officials around the state. That’s where WUOT-FM, the public radio station in Knoxville, comes in.

The station requested a copy from the Knox County Health Department. Director Martha Buchanan said since she shared the report with the county Board of Health, a a decision-making body, it became subject to Tennessee open records laws.

The report includes a recommendation to impose a statewide mask mandate, which is something Lee has decided to leave to county mayors and health departments.

The report says Tennessee saw a 41% spike in new coronavirus cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, and a 32% increase in COVID-19 related deaths over the period. At the same time, the number of tests being conducted around the state has dropped. The sharpest increases in coronavirus cases has occurred in Putnam, Wilson, and Sullivan counties, according to the White House.

Read the full WUOT and the White House report on Tennessee report here.