NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee started out its fight against coronavirus by declining to tell people which counties the virus had been found in. Then came a wave of criticism from across the state.
That outcry may explain why the state ultimately backed down and made more data public.
“I find your decision to not release where the latest Coronavirus cases are located to be deplorable,” wrote Margaret Burgess, from Cookeville, in a March 10 email to Gov. Bill Lee’s office. “I am 75 years old and have just been diagnosed with a cancerous spot on my lung. My husband is 80 years old. For this info to not be available, puts us in double jeopardy.”
Others were more colorful in their feedback.
“What do you think you are some jack booted dictator,” wrote Lloyd Sanders of Cottage Grove. “It is the lives of my family you are screwing with. Panic is caused by the unknown.”
The stern pleadings were among the nearly 200 public comments and phone messages provided by Lee’s administration to The Associated Press through a public records request. Ultimately, Lee’s administration changed course and offered up the county-level data. And this week, his team flipped to say it will start identifying the counties for patient deaths as well.
The documents provide insight into the outside pressure the first-term Republican governor has received as his administration has struggled to balance how much information to provide to the public during an unprecedented global pandemic that has upended almost every Tennessean’s life.
“Can you give me some talking points for tomorrow on why the Governor has decided not to reveal the counties for the Coronavirus?” asked Vanessa Hatcher, an administrative assistant for Lee, in an email to the governor’s external affairs director on March 10.
Just a few hours later after Hatcher’s email, the Republican’s Department of Health announced that county information would be provided but warned that information about age and gender of those confirmed virus cases would not.
Lee’s office denied the AP an undisclosed amount of internal emails and other documents regarding the county information decision, claiming that such records were exempt from the state’s public records law.
As the amount of cases has continued to increase in Tennessee, however, Lee’s top officials have changed course several times in what information is provided by the state.
Confirmed cases are now broken down by age. Initially, the state resisted publicizing such information, but now coronavirus hospitalization data is updated daily.
Most recently, open government advocates and lawmakers echoed similar arguments that county information surrounding virus-related deaths must be provided to the public after the health agency once again cited privacy concerns for blocking such information.
After another round of pressure, Lee announced earlier this week that the state would not only list county information for COVID-19 deaths but also list the number of negative tests on a county level.
“We pushed because we wanted to provide that transparency,” Lee told reporters on Tuesday.
Amid the criticism, Lee has repeatedly stressed his desire to be transparent with the public while handling the virus outbreak in Tennessee.
The governor has held daily weekday media briefings where he provides updates and fields questions from a handful of journalists.
Lee has also had to take executive action to let local counties and cities meet remotely after the GOP-dominant Legislature failed to do so in the final hours before abruptly passing an emergency spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year and recessing due to coronavirus concerns.
The executive order included strong transparency measures recommended by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, which had otherwise been rebuffed by some state lawmakers.
“It recognized the need for governing bodies to continue what they’re doing, but it really recognized the importance of allowing the public to know what their governing bodies were doing,” said Deborah Fisher, the coalition’s executive director.
Fisher praised the governor’s executive order but also encouraged the administration to continue releasing more information to the public.
“I’m glad they’ve made the changes that they have,” she said. “I think they need to err on the side of making sure the information is carried out to the public.”
As of Wednesday, Tennessee had more than 2,600 confirmed cases and 24 deaths related to the virus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the majority of people recover. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.