BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist
As concern spreads over the coronavirus, state health officials are urging citizens to practice good health-conscious techniques, avoid mass gatherings, and to be prepared that things could get worse before they get better.
As of March 20, 228 cases of the virus have been confirmed across the state, prompting Gov. Bill Lee to declare a state of emergency on March 12 and order the closure of all public schools on March 16.
The state of emergency expanded COVID-19 testing sites, authorizes TennCare to provide medically necessary services to endangered individuals, works with health insurers to coordinate patient care, implements price gouging protections on certain items, and relaxes other laws aimed at combating the virus.
“This action will move us into a position to utilize additional emergency funds as needed and relax provisions of certain laws to provide the flexibility needed to respond to this disease,” Gov. Lee said. “While the risk to the general public remains low, we encourage all Tennesseans to exercise caution and maintain good hygiene practices as there are serious risks to our vulnerable populations. We will continue to evaluate and adapt our position accordingly to fit what we believe is best for Tennesseans.”
Lee also announced resources would be provided to help school systems impacted by closures.
“Superintendents and local leadership have the full support of my administration to determine effective dates for closure this week as they evaluate what is best for families within their respective districts. We understand the tremendous burden school closure places on families, and we will continue to work with both the federal government and school districts to ensure we continue essential supports like meals for students in need.
Every Tennessean has a role to play in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and I urge Tennesseans to be quick to help neighbors as new needs surface with the closure of schools.”
The Tennessee Department of Health confirmed the first case of COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Williamson County on March 5. The patient had recently traveled out of state but not out of the country.
To date, there are 101 positive cases in Davidson County, 35 postiive cases in Williamson County, one in Anderson County, one in Blount County, one in Bradley County, one in Campbell County, two in Cheatham County, two in Cumberland County, two in Dickson County, one in Dyer County, one Greene County, one in Hamblen County, five in Hamilton County, one in Jefferson County, three in Knox County, one in Maury County, three in Montgomery County, two in Robertson County, one in Rutherford County, one in Sevier County, four in Shelby County, one in Sullivan County, 11 in Sumner County, one in Tipton County, two in Washington County, and three in Wilson County,
The state has conducted 352 tests, 22 of which were positive. Another 51 positive tests were reported to the state by commercial and private laboratories.
The state initially was sending tests for the virus to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for additional testing. Testing kits were not initially widely available in the state, but Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said they would become more widely available as further kits from the CDC for governmental use as well as private sector healthcare facilities began to acquire more.
“The game is about to change for testing,” she said. “We will very soon move from not just public state health lab testing, but also commercial availability. The state lab will continue to test, but the expanded capacity will be significantly expanded given the commercialization.”
Remote assessment sites for COVID-19 are quickly becoming available through the help of private providers. Remote assessment sites, casually referred to as “drive through testing” allow Tennesseans to safely pursue COVID-19 testing without creating unnecessary risks in traditional clinical settings. The updated list of remote assessment sites is available at https://www.tn.gov/governor/covid-19/remote-assessment-sites.html.
All of the state’s major health insurance carriers said they would be covering the costs for customers who needed to be tested for the virus. The Department of Commerce and Insurance also announced that all state-licensed medical insurers will cover all costs for coronavirus testing. Piercey said the state will provide care to uninsured patients the way it always does: through safety-net facilities and charity care protocols. The state has received $10 million from the federal government to combat the disease.
To combat the spread of the disease, Gov. Lee also announced the creation of a Coronavirus Task Force to help coordinate efforts to prevent, identify, and treat any possible cases in the state. The task force includes education, healthcare, and insurance officials from both the public and private sectors.
“As confirmed cases of the coronavirus spread across the country, it is important that Tennessee remains prepared,” Lee said. “To help us be even better prepared, this group of experts will work closely with me and my administration, along with local, state, and federal agencies as we continue to monitor any potential developments. I appreciate their willingness to serve our state.”
Bill Christian, associate director of the Tennessee Department of Health’s Office of Communication and Media Relations, said the state health department is working closely with medical professionals across the state to monitor the situation.
“We have been closely monitoring the situation in China and around the world since early January,” Christian said. “We activated our State Health Operations Center, which allows us to maximize our capacity and available resources, and we are working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the metro and regional health departments across the state on all COVID-19 related activities. We have issued two Tennessee Health Alert Network messages to approximately 18,000 clinicians, hospitals, and public health professionals in Tennessee and are maintaining a website with the most up to date guidance and information available.”
In the meantime, Piercey said it is important to avoid panic concerning the disease while still taking proper precautions.
“Fear, panic, and misinformation can be just as dangerous as an outbreak itself. If you want additional information, I encourage you to seek a reputable source of news, such as the CDC or the World Health Organization.”
Tennessee-specific information about the coronavirus and how the state is handling it can be found by visiting www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html.