Inaccurate COVID-19 counts trouble mayor

By TIM SINIARD
Posted 3/25/20

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks said a Tuesday morning conference call with Tennessee Department of Health officials regarding the agency's inaccurate  reporting of the number of Bradley County …

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Inaccurate COVID-19 counts trouble mayor

Posted
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks said a Tuesday morning conference call with Tennessee Department of Health officials regarding the agency's inaccurate  reporting of the number of Bradley County residents diagnosed with COVID-19 resulted in apologies, but with no concrete answers.
 
The conference call was held after the TDH on Monday announced the county just had one case testing positive for the novel coronavirus, instead of two as reported on Sunday.
 
Although it was good news, it was also troubling news. Were the numbers accurate? Could they be trusted?
 
“There was a lot of discussion about a second case,” Brooks said. “I used the opportunity to voice my concerns about the validity of the reporting.”
 
But by Tuesday afternoon, the count for Bradley County was back to two. 
 
Brooks said TDH officials would look into the matter. He stressed that accuracy is important for public trust. In addition, he said numbers reported for each county help elected officials make important decisions that affect their constituents such as the emergency declaration that was jointly signed by Brooks and Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis last week.
 
“A mayor needs to know what the threshold is,” Brooks said.
 
He said he understood that testing labs are getting bombarded with tests that need to be expedited quickly and speculated the use of private labs to conduct the tests may be part of the issue regarding the inaccurate number of cases reported.
 
“The private labs have changed the dynamic,” he said, adding that some may have reported test results to counties instead of the state health department in Nashville and vice versa.
 
He said he will continue working with state officials to find out additional information.
 
Amanda Goodhard, assessment and planning coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Health, Southeast Region, said the discrepancy in the TDH’s reporting of cases for Bradley County, as well as other counties, was the result of the department switching from one computer system to another.
 
“We are using a different system now,” she said, adding that the new system can handle larger amounts of data.
 
In addition, the information from private labs, as mentioned by Brooks, also contributed to the skewed numbers.
 
“We have had to work the kinks out of the system,” she said.
 
Goodhard also said the department has included a statement on its reporting page that states “laboratory reports of positive cases are reported to metro and local health departments as soon as results are available. State numbers are updated at 2 p.m. daily and there may be a lag in the reporting of cumulative numbers at the state level.”
 
In addition, the data listed on its website are meant to provide a rough estimate of testing volume. 
 
“Due to different source data, numbers may differ slightly from day to day,” the TDH said.
 
She did not immediately have information regarding the individual in the second case reported on Tuesday.
 
For Tuesday, the TDH reported that 1,031 individuals had been tested at the Tennessee State Public Health Laboratory, with 955 testing negative and 76 testing positive for COVID-19.
 
In addition, 10,113 individuals were tested at other commercial and private laboratories, with 9,522 testing negative and 591 testing positive for COVID-19.
 
As a result, the novel coronavirus case count was 667. Two people in Tennessee have died from the virus — one on Friday and another on Saturday.
 
Shutdown legalities
checked by officials
 
The mayor also told the Cleveland Daily Banner that City Manager Joe Fivas and City Attorney John Kimball are currently checking to see if the Cleveland City Charter allows for shutdowns of businesses as the novel coronavirus threat grows.
 
Unlike larger cities such as Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga, where mayors have sweeping powers to make such decisions, Cleveland’s city charter may not allow Brooks to order certain businesses closed.
 
“They have different forms of government,” he said.
 
On Monday, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke ordered the closures of retail stores, as well as two shopping malls. Included were hair salons, beauty shops, barber shops, tanning salons and tattoo parlors.
 
The executive order also prohibited mass gatherings of 10 or more people in accordance with Tennessee Gov. Lee’s executive order that was issued last weekend.
 
Berke’s order, which begins on Wednesday (today), does not have an expiration date.
 
“ …As this crisis grows, we know it may be necessary to keep these mandates in place even longer, so we have no end date at this time,” Berke said.
 
On Sunday, Nashville Mayor John Cooper announced the “Safer at Home Order."
 
“This order closes non-essential businesses and encourages residents throughout Davidson County to stay home when possible and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people for non-essential purposes,” according to the mayor’s website. “Until further notice, all businesses not performing essential services have been ordered closed for 14 days beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday, March 23.”
 
For now, Brooks said the city will follow Lee’s executive order that was issued Sunday and last until April 6.
 
The governor’s executive order outlined ways businesses and citizens should work to protect vulnerable populations by adhering to the following:
 
 • Establishments are to exclusively offer drive-thru, take-out or delivery options to support families, businesses and the food supply chain during this emergency.
 
• Establishments may sell alcohol by take-out or delivery (with the purchase of food) in closed containers to those who are age 21 and up.
 
• Gyms and fitness/exercise centers or substantially similar facilities are to temporarily close and suspend in-person services until April 6.
 
In the interim, Lee said those businesses are encouraged to pursue digital programming, if possible.   
 
The order also pursues additional measures to keep vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions safe:
 
• Visitation to nursing homes, retirement homes and long-term care or assisted-living facilities is now limited to visits involving essential care only.
 
• Businesses are encouraged to enact policies that take extra steps to assist vulnerable populations by considering measures such as shopping hours exclusive from the general public.
 
Despite the confusion over the numbers reported by the TDH, there is one main thing Brooks wants Cleveland residents to do in order to limit the spread of the virus.
 
“Stay home,” he said.
 
Lee, Schwinn want
schools closed longer
 
Also on Tuesday, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn released a statement on the governor's announcement recommending school districts remain closed through April 24. 
 
She said it was an "unprecedented time for our country and state," and thanked Lee for his leadership in "protecting the health and well-being of Tennessee's students and teachers."
 
"We know school closures represent a significant disruption for families and students and the recommendation to extend them has not been considered lightly," Schwinn said.
 
The Department of Education team will continue to work closely with school districts as they serve students and families during this time," she said.
 
"We are committed to doing whatever we can to support our district leaders as they make the necessary decisions to ensure students can continue to access critical meal and other services, as well as receive high-quality academic instruction while they are out of school," she said. 
 
Schwinn lauded the work and dedication of school system personnel.
 
“Even in the midst of these challenges, we have seen an incredible outpouring from districts, schools and teachers going above and beyond to ensure students continue to have access to food and have the supports they need to continue learning," Schwinn said. "This is a huge testament to our resilience as a state and the dedication of our educators and leaders."
 

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