State officials are reversing course on a controversial policy that provides coronavirus test results with local law enforcement and first responders.
Gov. Bill Lee’s office says it will stop sharing the data on May 31, after hearing concerns from both sides of the political aisle. Conservative lawmakers, the Tennessee Black Caucus and immigrants’ rights advocates have all criticized the state’s decision to provide the names and addresses of people who test positive for the coronavirus.
“This completely undermines all of the work organizations like ours are doing to encourage people to go get tested,” the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition wrote on Twitter after the Tennessee Lookout first exposed the policy earlier this month.
This completely undermines all of the work organizations like ours are doing to encourage people to go get tested. This will exacerbate the public health crisis. This policy must be rescinded immediately. https://t.co/Fvmdr90oma
— TIRRC (@tnimmigrant) May 8, 2020
Lee defended the practice soon after the report but said he never planned for it to be permanent.
“In the midst of imminent danger, as was part of the unknown of COVID four, five, six weeks ago, the unknown allowed for and required for decisions to be made that we knew would be temporary,” he said, adding that officials would reevaluate the policy in the coming days.
In an email sent to officials Tuesday night, Todd Skelton, an attorney for the governor’s COVID-19 task force, said the policy was no longer necessary to keep first responders safe.
“[The Department of] Health has tried to maintain a balance between respecting patient privacy rights and preventing and lessening a serious health threat to first responders and law enforcement,” Skelton wrote. “Even as we continue to address many COVID-19 challenges, two developments make this an appropriate time for Health to cease the COVID-19 PHI [Public Health Information] disclosures.”
He said access to personal protective equipment is now more readily available. And that first responders ought to treat anyone they interact with as if they have the virus — whether or not they’ve tested positive.
“[T]he prevalence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases may be creating a false sense of security,” Skelton wrote. “Individuals who have COVID-19 but who have not sought testing because they do not have symptoms may unintentionally transmit the virus to your personnel because the need to wear PPE was not apparent.”
Skelton said the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency had already shipped agencies 1.4 million PPE items and that more masks and N95 respirators were on the way.
“Therefore,” he wrote, “first responders and law enforcement are encouraged to treat all close interactions with individuals with appropriate precautions.”
The Department of Health has provided a list of the names and addresses of people who test positive for the coronavirus with 70 sheriffs and police chiefs, including the Belle Meade Police Department and the Nashville Airport Authority. They’ve been told to delete or shred that information within 30 days.