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VOL. 44 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 27, 2020

Lee cites 'legal challenges' surrounding COVID-19 death info

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee says "legal challenges" are preventing Tennessee's top health officials from releasing location information on where coronavirus deaths have occurred in the state.

The Republican is facing increased pressure to release the county information as Tennessee's death toll from the virus climbed to 23 as of Tuesday — which includes a former college president who was serving as a pastor in Memphis.

Lee has stopped short of divulging specifics around those legal challenges, however, when pressed as to why his administration was refusing to release the information that is currently being distributed in many other states.

Instead, Lee said his office was studying the situation and hinted the position may change in the near future.

"There's a unique and challenging legal issue around reporting deaths by county but we want to get past that issue if at all possible," Lee said during a Monday news briefing. "So we are exploring that very particular issue because we think we may be able to work through those legal challenges. We are committed to transparency."

To date, Tennessee's Department of Health has held off from pinpointing where, exactly, those deaths took place.

Meanwhile, local health officials in the state's most populous areas — ranging from Nashville to Chattanooga — have publicly released deaths in their counties without fear of any potential legal issues.

For example, Shelby County has reported 405 cases and three deaths as of Tuesday.

Second Presbyterian Church spokesman Robb Roaten said Tuesday that Pastor Timothy Russell, who served as assistant pastor to middle adults, died Monday at a hospital from complications from the virus.

Russell had previously served as the president of the Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies and the Head of School at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Yet even with the local data, gaps remain in pinpointing where COVID-19 deaths have taken place.

Open government advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have called for the release of county information regarding COVID-19 deaths, arguing that keeping such data private only sparks public mistrust.

"I truly don't understand how there could be a legal issue related to reporting this information," tweeted state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville. "Don't think there's a (Tennessee) statute that stands in the way? It almost can't be a federal issue unless we're reading federal law quite differently than all these other states."

Their arguments echo similar concerns flagged earlier this month when Lee's Department of Health originally refused to release any county information related to COVID-19 cases.

At the time, the health agency said it was doing so to protect patient privacy — a position Lee initially supported before the agency reversed course.

Now the health agency is once again raising privacy concerns surrounding COVID-19 related deaths.

"We are providing numbers of deaths at the state level only due to the risk of reidentification of those individuals," Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the health agency, said in an email over the weekend.

According to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, many other states have safely released deaths by county without identifying individuals, including Georgia, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Overall, Tennessee has more than 2,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The impacts of the virus continued to ripple across the state, with event organizers announcing that the popular CMA Fest 2020 was canceled and Nashville Mayor John Cooper warning that property taxes would need to increase to fix the city's increasing budget issues, which has been exasperated by both the virus and recent fatal tornadoes that ripped across Middle Tennessee.

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.

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Associated Press writer Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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