Tennessee must become transparent in its infection reporting

It took localities to lead the way before the state of Tennessee finally agreed to give residents more detailed information on COVID-19 distribution. But the state refuses to release infection rates by city or ZIP code.

The Tennessee Department of Education will be reporting COVID-19 information at school and district levels including numbers of new positive cases. It acted only after East Tennessee State University, Carter County Schools, Kingsport City Schools, Unicoi County Schools and Elizabethton City Schools, among others, released public dashboards on their websites. Johnson City Schools has also confirmed plans to create its own online dashboard.

The Kingsport schools website at www.k12k.com lists confirmed cases by date in each school in the city, information parents can use in determining whether they want their children to be learning in person or virtually. But while the state will be listing the same information on how many students in each school in every district in the state have become ill, it only releases caseloads by county. The state knows caseloads by city and ZIP code but won’t release it.

Why not? States around the country are giving their residents case counts by municipality and ZIP code to show where the virus has hit hardest and inform decisions not only on how to deploy resources to fight the pandemic but where residents, especially those at high risk, should take further precautions.

The state health department just unveiled a new reporting format with its daily update including “corrections” for county case levels.

A change was also made in how cases are classified as active, inactive or recovered.

As a result, Sullivan County increased from 1,730 cases to 1,800 with 26 deaths while active cases in the county dropped from 453 to 425.

“We’re pleased to be adding new reports to help support rapid public health actions in Tennessee communities,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. “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.”

The new format includes 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,” the press release states, in part. “Previously, TDH considered a case recovered after a 21-day period.”

All well and good. But if the state health department wants to do its best job to “promote data transparency” and “help support rapid public health actions,” it will add cases by ZIP code and community to its daily updates.

The state has the information. Release it. Otherwise so-called “transparency” is anything but.

-The Kingsport Times-News