Testing numbers statewide released; local numbers still unknown

By Updated: March 25, 2020 10:25 PM CT | Published: March 25, 2020 8:20 PM CT

Going into the third week of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still impossible to get any kind of official numbers on how many people have been tested in Shelby County. There are estimates and rough figures, but local leaders won’t release even a ballpark figure as state government this week said more than 11,700 had been tested across Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday, March 25, in Nashville the state is testing more people for COVID-19 than other states in the region, even states with higher populations.


170 latest count of confirmed cases in Shelby County


Through Wednesday, 11,796 people had been tested statewide for the virus. Of the 784 positive test results, 170 have been in Shelby County.

But there continues to be no verified numbers from a single source made public on how many people have been tested in Shelby County. Tennessee Health Department officials did not respond to inquiries from The Daily Memphian about county numbers. And Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter said she would not release even an estimate of the number of people tested locally.

<strong>Bill Lee</strong>

Bill Lee

The hang-up is a state law that requires labs, hospitals and clinics to report how many people they’ve tested and the results to the state but to only report confirmed cases to county health officials. That means the local health department has only partial numbers.

“I’ve talked a lot about testing in the last several weeks and will continue to because I believe it is one of the most important things we can do to blunt the severity of the onset and the surge in cases across Tennessee,” Lee said Wednesday in his daily briefing in Nashville. “So, our team has been incredibly focused on expanding testing in Tennessee so that we can have a better handle of where the virus is in our state.”

Lee initially said information about negative tests wasn’t helpful but relented last week and said private labs would start providing the number of negative tests along with positives in an effort to track the disease more effectively.


Coronavirus daily blog, March 25: Tennessee up to 784 cases, including 3 deaths


State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who wore a mask in the capitol at several points in the abbreviated and recessed legislative session, said nothing is more important for government than building trust with residents through “transparency.”

“The citizens deserve to know what’s going on in each county for more than one reason. The confidence that government is doing all it should do, could do, for the citizens in this time of crisis, it depends upon the trust factor,” said Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat.

<strong>G.A. Hardaway</strong>

G.A. Hardaway

People will be more likely to comply with “the dictates of government” if they have complete information, Hardaway said.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville agreed that the low number of positive cases in outlying counties is “making people think falsely” that the virus is not rampant in areas outside the state’s biggest cities.

“We need, at every level, to have transparency about testing,” Stewart said.

Numbers gathered by The Daily Memphian individually from some but not all local hospitals and clinics show Baptist Memorial Health Care Corp. has tested more than 3,700 from late February through Tuesday at all of its facilities inside and outside the Memphis Metro market that takes in DeSoto, Tipton and Crittenden counties.

The Baptist totals from Memphis, including the Women’s Hospital and Collierville — all within Shelby County — accounted for 1,732 of the total for the metro area with 140 positive tests, 1,448 negative results and another 144 test results pending as of Wednesday.

Excluding those results pending through Tuesday, that comes to 8.8% positive just for the Baptist testing within Shelby County.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>

Alisa Haushalter

At the Monday Health Department briefing, Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter said admittedly incomplete data on the total number of tests received by her agency put the county positive rate at about 3%.

“Again, it’s incomplete as far as the number of tests,” she said.

Meanwhile, 120 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the county from Monday to Wednesday.

So far in Shelby County, testing has been limited to those referred for testing by physicians with the exception of 30 tests offered last week for drive-thru service by a physician in Lakeland on a first come, first served basis.

Haushalter said the limitations help health officials get a better idea of whether the virus is growing in its spread or waning.

“You test people who have signs and symptoms or who have been in contact and who have signs and symptoms,” she said Monday. “Mass testing — you wind up testing a lot of people who did not need to be tested and you lower your positivity rate, which lets me know we are wasting supplies.”

Numbers from other health care providers including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Regional One Health, the seven Christ Community Health Centers that are assessment centers for the state and the Tiger Lane drive-thru testing center operated by the University of Tennessee Health Science Center show much lower numbers.

 

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There are no testing numbers for the three laboratories used for testing in the Memphis area.

Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare told The Daily Memphian its numbers would have to come from the Shelby County Health Department.

“That’s not accurate,” Haushalter responded. “What the hospitals give us are the positive reports only, consistent with state law.”

“And we understand the importance of having that total number as well as those positive for that positivity rate,” she said. “But we are not going to release information that is inaccurate.”

Health Department epidemiology director David Sweat said the state is working with hospitals, clinics and laboratories to get a number of everyone tested.

“The state is working a report to help us get that number,” he said. “They are reporting it at the statewide level and they (the state) have been working on a report that will generate those numbers for us at local levels. Unfortunately, that report just isn’t quite working right yet. But we hope to have those numbers shortly.”

Here is the data from the hospitals and leaders of the other efforts who responded to inquiries from The Daily Memphian:

Baptist Memorial Health Care

The most detailed testing numbers available from Memphis hospitals and health care facilities shows 2,324 people tested through Tuesday for the hospital’s “metro market,” which includes Memphis as well its facilities in DeSoto, Tipton and Crittenden counties and Collierville.

Of that total, 169 tested positive and 1,952 negative for COVID-19 with another 203 tests pending. That is a 7.9% positivity rate excluding the pending test results.

For the complete Baptist system, which includes West Tennessee and Mississippi outside of the Memphis metro area as well as clinics in the broader area: 3,734 have been tested. 297 tested positive for COVID-19 and 2,910 tested negative with 527 test results pending.

The systemwide results show 9.2% of those tested are testing positive for the virus excluding the test results that are still pending.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Testing at St. Jude has been limited to patients and their families as well as employees. Katy Hobgood of St. Jude estimated half of the 200 people tested there as of Monday morning were patients and families and the other half employees. No results were provided of positive or negative tests.

Regional One Health

Of 93 people reported tested at the city’s safety net hospital as of Wednesday afternoon, four tested positive and 73 negative with 16 test results pending.

University of Tennessee Health Science Center at Tiger Lane

The Fairgrounds drive-thru effort that began Monday has tested 230 people since a Monday opening, an abbreviated day Tuesday because of rain and into Wednesday afternoon. No results were provided of positive or negative tests.

Lee said at his Wednesday briefing that the state intends to use all $10 million of the federal funding it will get from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on “testing and on supplies for testing and capacity for testing.”

“We are a leader in testing, what I would call a proportional leader in our region,” he said. “The number of tests compared to the population, the tests per capita. So in other words, we are testing more than states around us that have higher populations. … I genuinely believe that will help us to have a real significant impact on the severity of the surge.”

But the lack of consolidated numbers falls along the line that divides public health agencies from private health care corporations.

Haushalter said she and her staff are working on a more complete profile of the spread of the virus in Shelby County. The Wednesday briefing included, for the first time, demographic information on the age of the confirmed cases. Those 60 years old and younger account for 74% of the county’s 170 confirmed cases. Those 21 to 40 years old make up 38% of the total.

“Although testing remains something we would like to have more access to and a greater capacity to perform in our health care systems locally, people are able to be tested,” Sweat said.

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said there are not enough tests. Asked Wednesday for a total of all of those tested in Shelby County for COVID-19, Strickland’s office referred the question to the Shelby County Health Department.

Topics

coronavirus Alisa Haushalter David Sweat Bill Lee G.A. Hardaway
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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