As scientists around the world are using as much data as they can to develop strategies to fight the coronavirus pandemic, The Tennessee Department of Health is refusing to share important information.

Volunteer data aggregators like The COVID Tracking Project, covidtracking.com, need complete data sets to create their sophisticated databases that they offer to the public to better understand this pandemic. They say on their website that their reporting is only as good as the data the health departments release.

The TDH previously refused to disclose the counties where coronavirus cases were located after having provided that information in the beginning. They relented after intense public pressure and began releasing that information.

Test analysis is performed both by the TDH and by private labs, such as those serving hospitals and clinics that test patients. Previously, the state was not requiring these private labs to report negative results – only positive.

It literally took an act passed by Congress, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, to force the TDH’s and Gov. Bill Lee’s hands. The act empowered the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to require state and local health departments to send it all test data.

It took state officials a little time, but they began releasing the numbers of negative tests.

Now, the TDH is refusing to say where fatalities are happening. 

The department says, “We are providing numbers of deaths at the state level only due to the risk of reidentification of those individuals.”

Metro Public Health Department in Nashville discloses the deaths in Davidson County as well as the victim’s gender, age and if he or she had any underlying health conditions, which have been shown to present a higher risk factor for patients.

The TDH is making its claim despite instances of many other states reporting deaths by county. These include: Iowa; Michigan; Washington; New Mexico; Pennsylvania; Oklahoma; Louisiana; Ohio; Colorado; Missouri; Texas; North Carolina; Florida.

Apparently, city leaders also are suffering from a lack of data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Jason Cole, mayor of La Vergne, on Saturday tweeted about his frustration. He said he sent the department a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights addressing COVID-19 disclosures to public health officials, law enforcement and other first responders.

Cole said that TDH is not informing him of any positive test results of residents inside his town, citing HIPAA regulations. Cole said he has worked in healthcare and knows HIPAA regulations, and TDH is not correct. Also, the federal government has loosened some HIPAA rules during the national state of emergency.

“We’re not asking for their addresses, their names, their dates of birth,” Cole said. “We just want to know what municipality they belong to. We want to make the appropriate measured response.”

A March HHS memo to health care workers says, “the HIPAA Privacy Rule allows patient information to be shared to assist in nationwide public health emergencies” and lists waivers on several other HIPAA rules. 

When pressed on its reason for not disclosing the counties with deaths, a TDH spokeswoman said, “We certainly do want all Tennesseans to take this situation seriously and take actions to protect themselves and others by reducing further spread of illness.”

She went on to list the common measures like washing hands.

It’s going to take more than hand-washing to protect the public, as important as that measure is. It’s going to take full transparency to gain the public’s trust and empower Tennesseans at all walks of life to make fully informed decisions to protect themselves and others.

Our View is the opinion of the Main Street Media of Tennessee editorial board.

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