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

Lee: More information to be released on COVID-19 deaths

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that Tennessee will soon release location information on where coronavirus deaths have occurred in the state after his administration initially declined to do so.

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

Earlier this week, Lee cited "legal challenges" as the reason his administration was refusing to release the information that is being distributed in many other states — but hinted that position could soon change.

By Tuesday, Lee said 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 are committed to transparency," Lee said.

Previously, Tennessee's Department of Health had 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 Timothy Russell, who served as an assistant pastor, 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.

Senior pastor George Robertson said Russell was his family's pastor and his own spiritual mentor, but he was also "everybody's pastor."

"He prayed for me when I had big decisions to make, he comforted me when I was grieving," Robertson said in a Facebook message.

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

Their arguments echoed 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.

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 effects 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.

Also on Tuesday, Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation & Healing's administrator confirmed to her recently that three residents have died related to COVID-19.

Piercey said that "contact tracing" is under way to try to find out how the virus was introduced at the facility.

"That work is ongoing. That is a substantial amount of work given the number of positives there," Piercey said at an electronic news conference Tuesday. "Many of the people who need to be interviewed are currently hospitalized and so that slows down that process. But please be assured that we are doing that to our utmost ability and we'll get to the bottom of it."

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 writers Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee and 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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