Tennessee ranked fifth in the country for COVID deaths per 100,000 people, according to a White House task force report issued to Governor Bill Lee on October 11. The recommendations in the report say “a statewide mask mandate must be implemented to stop the increasing spread among residents in rural and urban areas of Tennessee.”
The White House coronavirus task force sends weekly COVID “red zone” reports to state governors, but does not release them to the public. Nonprofit reporting outlet The Center for Public Integrity has been tracking and collecting these reports from individual states. Governor Bill Lee and state health officials have not responded to the Center for Public Integrity’s repeated requests for the reports. Tennessee is one of 13 states that has declined to release its White House reports to the public.
In response to an inquiry from WUOT News Thursday, Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan said she has received the reports from the Governor’s office and shared them with the Board of Health. Since the board is a decision-making body, the reports became subject to Tennessee’s open records laws. WUOT News accessed the reports through a public records request to the Knox County Health Department.
The most recent report from the White House shows 39 percent of nursing homes in Tennessee had at least one staff COVID case during the first week of October. Eighty-nine percent of all counties in Tennessee are in the “orange” or “red” zones, the task force’s method of labeling moderate to high levels of community transmission. Knox County had the third-highest number of new cases in the state, following Davidson and Shelby.
Governor Bill Lee said Wednesday he has not released this report to ensure Tennessee’s Department of Health is the public’s main source of data. “Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.
Dr. Lisa Piercey reiterated Governor Lee’s assertion that more data would confuse the public. “The methodology that they use because of the time lag and because of the combination of multiple sources can be sometimes confusing,” Piercey said Wednesday.
The report includes recommendations alongside the data, but Piercey said the recommendations do not need to be released because “in all of those reports are exactly what you hear coming from our mouths.” However, the state is not currently following the White House recommendation to implement a state-wide mask mandate.
Friday afternoon, Lee's office released a statement that read in part, “The governor’s view has not changed based upon non-binding recommendations from the federal government. Previous White House reports dating back to the summer have included similar recommendations, so the inclusion here is not novel.”
There was a steep spike in cases per 100,000 people in the first week of October. The report shows that between October 4 and 11, there was a 41 percent increase in new COVID cases and a 32 percent increase in COVID deaths statewide. These increases come as the total number of tests being performed has dropped statewide. Knox County Health Department director Martha Buchanan said she believes people are intentionally avoiding testing.
"They don't want to isolate, they don't want to quarantine, they don't want to have to tell their friends to quarantine," Buchanan said. "None of those are any fun, but the challenge is if people don’t get tested and they don't know they have the disease and they don't stay home, they’re just going to keep making other people sick and we’re just going to see those hospitalizations go up and see our deaths go up."
The sharpest COVID case jumps were in Putnam, Wilson and Sullivan counties. Knoxville and Knox County were listed in the "orange zone," signifying both an increase in cases and a testing positivity rate between 8 and 10 percent.
This story was updated Sunday, October 18, to include reaction from Gov. Bill Lee's office and to correct Tennessee's ranking in death rate, which was initially reported as fourth in the nation.