When it comes to coronavirus testing, Tennessee leads the South

This kinda falls into line with the TN vs. KY comparisons that I’ve been drawing, except it compares Tennessee to the region as a whole and not just to Kentucky.

Tennessee is Southern leader in coronavirus testing

Even before it enlisted the help of the National Guard to offer drive-thru testing clinics on weekends, Tennessee had emerged as a regional leader in coronavirus testing.

But since those weekend clinics started, the Volunteer State has widened its lead, and has the numbers to make an argument for leading the South when it comes to its coronavirus response.

The state has tested nearly 18,000 people at those drive-thru testing sites — which are open to anyone, regardless of symptoms, and free — the past two weekends. Those numbers have contributed to the total of almost 170,000 coronavirus tests that have been performed in Tennessee.

As a result, Tennessee is one of only three states in the Southeast that has tested more than 2,000 people per 100,000 population since the coronavirus outbreak began. Only Louisiana, which has tested 3,404 per 100,000, has tested more than Tennessee’s 2,479 per 100,000.

You can hit the link to read all the numbers, but basically Tennessee is playing the Covid-19 testing game better than anyone else in the South. The Volunteer State ranks #2 (behind Louisiana) in per-capita testing, #1 in the number of tests returning negative, #1 in the lowest hospitalization rate, and #2 (behind Arkansas) in case fatality rate.

Two things are growing increasingly clear as more data becomes available:

1.) The number of people infected by Covid-19 who are asymptomatic is substantial. That isn’t a new revelation by any means, but it’s an important concept to keep in mind.

2.) As you test more people, two things are going to happen: A.) You’re going to find more cases, and B.) You’re going to find a lower percentage of positive cases.

I don’t think Tennessee is really faring any better than the rest of the South when it comes to things like hospitalizations and deaths. Tennessee is not a healthy state — certainly no moreso than Kentucky or Louisiana or Alabama. But it looks like Tennessee is faring better because Tennessee is doing a better job of identifying those asymptomatic or mild cases that are not being detected in other states.

For example: There’s simply no way that 30% of everyone who is being infected with Covid-19 in Kentucky is winding up in a hospital, or that 24% of everyone who is being infected with Covid-19 in Virginia is winding up in a hospital.

Instead, those states have abnormally high hospitalization rates because they aren’t identifying enough cases. The data makes it pretty clear: those who test less have higher hospitalization rates and higher death rates, almost without exception. You see it in Kentucky, you see it in Virginia, you see it in Georgia, you see it in South Carolina and you see it in Mississippi. The correlation of these numbers is not a coincidence.

That’s not to say that Tennessee is testing enough to paint a true picture of what’s going on in the Volunteer State. In all likelihood, we still only know of a small percentage of Tennesseans who have been infected. The testing conducted by the TN Dept. of Corrections at a state prison in Bledsoe County has highlighted that fact. Before TDOC tested every inmate at the prison, only a few were showing symptoms. A couple of thousand tests later, and a whopping 580+ inmates are found to have been infected — more than 20% of the inmate population there.

Antibody testing in New York has suggested that somewhere between 15% and 20% of the city has been infected. That’s about 10 times more cases than have been detected. There are a lot of potential issues with antibody testing at this early date — not the least of which is the possibility for anyone who’s had any strain of coronavirus to show antibodies, even if it’s the strain that causes the common cold. But even with their limitations, these initial antibody surveys are indicating that a lot more people are being infected than we’ve realized.

And, on a much more limited basis, Tennessee’s data is backing that up, as well.

What does that mean? Well, for starters, I’m not writing this to suggest that the coronavirus isn’t real, or that it isn’t a threat. The death toll in the U.S. is over 62,000 now. That’s more people than the seasonal flu kills, even in the worst of years … and the coronavirus has done it in 8 weeks (the flu season is 6 months), despite the extreme social distancing practices that have been in place. There are still, on average, more than 2,000 Americans dying per day.

Keep in mind also that the number of deaths we know about are probably under-reported. There are conspiracy theorists claiming that the CDC is inflating the death rate by telling doctors and hospitals to report deaths as Covid-19 even if they aren’t. That’s not true, but even if it was, many of the assumed Covid-19 deaths aren’t yet showing up in the official numbers — including in Tennessee.

So this is real. It’s a threat for the elderly, and it’s a threat for folks with underlying medical conditions. It’s easy enough to dismiss that with a shrug of the shoulders and an assumption that we’re not sick, so we’re okay. But keep in mind that the underlying medical conditions that are the biggest risk factors for Covid-19 are things like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. That takes in nearly half of the U.S. adult population.

I do think we can start to draw some conclusions about exactly who is most at risk. Even though we’ve known since before this virus reached our shores that it was mostly the elderly, and mostly the elderly with underlying conditions, who were most at risk, we can now start to assume that those most at risk are people who are even sicker than we first thought — which is why Covid-19 is impacting nursing homes so disproportionately (somewhere between 1 in 5 and half of all coronavirus-related deaths in America are occurring in these facilities … and it’s probably closer to half than it is to 1 in 5).

These are things that can guide us in our decision to reopen our nation’s economy. Obviously it doesn’t mean we can completely go back to normal, because we still have to protect those who are at risk. But if we can reasonably say that a 50-year-old with high blood pressure or a 60-year-old with diabetes isn’t at substantial risk, we can start to drop a lot of the restrictions that are currently in place while taking extra precautions to protect those who are medically vulnerable.

There seems to be a growing assumption that we should just hunker down until a vaccine is widely available. That isn’t an option. If we do that, we’ll have incurred so much damage to our economy and our societal structures that we’ll never again know normal in our lifetimes. Millions upon millions of people will be financially ruined.

So Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is doing the right thing by taking steps to reopen his state. I’m less convinced that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is going about it the right way, because the data shows that Georgia doesn’t have a firm handle on what this virus is doing. But the bottom line is that we have to start eyeing a way forward. When we shut everything down back in the middle of March, it was never intended to be an open-ended shutdown that could drag on endlessly. The fact that some politicians are now treating it as such, and that a growing number of citizens appear to be resigning themselves to such, is an attitude that we have to change.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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