I have been banging the drum on Tennessee’s coronavirus testing levels for weeks, because I feel like it’s an important — not to mention under-reported — subject.
I’ve written several blog posts here, and newspaper articles, about how Tennessee is leading the Southeast in coronavirus testing. That’s not blind support for Gov. Bill Lee; I’ve been highly critical of the governor at times, and our newspaper has written multiple editorials that were critical of his leadership during this pandemic (as well as multiple editorials applauding his leadership). Criticism when criticism is due … praise when praise is due. That’s how I see it, regardless of whether the politicians have an R or a D after their name.
Anyway, I first began to examine the data when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear begin criticizing Lee and Tennessee at the end of March. I wanted to compare Tennessee’s data against Kentucky’s data, and it immediately became clear that Tennessee had more tests than Kentucky — and many other Southern states — because the Volunteer State was testing more people.
Not only did Tennessee have fewer fatalities and fewer hospitalizations than Kentucky, in spite of more than twice as many cases, but a lower percentage of people were testing positive in Tennessee than in Kentucky. Experts have repeatedly said that a higher positive rate is an indicator that not enough people are being tested to catch the mild and asymptomatic cases.
By the end of April, the data was very clear: Tennessee’s approach to testing was better than anyone else in the Southeast. Tennessee had the lowest or second-lowest tests per capita, rate of positive tests, death rate and hospitalization rate in the 11-state region. Meanwhile, Beshear had blasted Tennessee for literally not doing enough to protect its citizens from coronavirus, when as it turned out, Tennessee had far more positive tests than Kentucky precisely because Tennessee was doing more to protect its citizens — in turns of testing and empowering leaders with better data to make decisions — than Kentucky. As a Kentucky columnist wrote, “Maybe Tennessee should have banned us first,” a reference to Beshear’s urging — and, later, an executive order that has since been declared by a judge to be unconstitutional — that Kentucky residents not travel to Tennessee.
For weeks, it seemed that everyone else was oblivious to the fact that Tennessee’s case count was particularly high because Tennessee was testing a particularly high amount of people. Some national news sources picked upon the TN vs. KY rivalry and ran with the perception that Kentucky was in far better shape than Tennessee — a claim they make despite Kentucky’s far higher rates of deaths per capita and hospitalizations per capita, which is simply a sign of shamefully lazy reporting.
Finally, on Saturday, The Tennessean had a story about an analysis from Harvard which found that Tennessee is one of only seven states in the nation that is testing enough people given the current status of the outbreak. Is it vindication when the state’s largest and most prestigious newspaper finally reports what the small-town guy with the much smaller audience has been trumpeting for weeks? And Harvard’s analysis confirmed exactly what I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen about Tennessee’s testing: Maybe it could be better, but it’s already better than just about anyone else. In fact, most of the seven states that Harvard said were doing it right were large, sparsely populated states, unlike Tennessee. And Tennessee was far and away testing more people above and beyond what the Harvard analysis deemed necessary than any of those other states — more than twice as many. So, in essence, Tennessee is doing coronavirus testing better than any other state in the country.
Hilariously, the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper — which has been accused of fawning over Beshear and lobbing softball questions to him at media briefings during this pandemic — published a story last week that asked the question: Will Tennessee’s reopening mean more cases in Kentucky border counties? The newspaper even ran with the comparison of Tennessee’s case count (over 13,000 at the time) vs. Kentucky’s (less than 6,000 at the time), and quoted a Democratic county judge-executive along the border as boasting that his county has fewer cases than the Tennessee county to its south … even after the data has shown, very clearly and obviously, that Kentucky only has fewer cases than Tennessee because they aren’t testing enough people.
And just for the icing on the cake, the newspaper quoted Beshear bragging about how Kentucky is handling the pandemic “better that just about every state.”
Seriously, Beshear said that.
To be fair, he was responding to a question about Indiana’s loosening of restrictions, not Tennessee. But that’s beside the point that the numbers show 3 out of every 10 Kentuckians who contract Covid-19 wind up in the hospital. And their case fatality rate, which was once the highest in America, remains in the upper echelon of states. Clearly, 3 of 10 Kentuckians who are infected with the virus aren’t being hospitalized, and 5% of them aren’t dying. But Beshear is refusing to test even half the people that Tennessee is testing, therefore keeping his total number of infections low so that he can brag about the job he’s doing. That reaffirms my opinion that Beshear — who took office only months before this pandemic began — is attempting to use this crisis to elevate his national status so that he can seek more ambitious perches in politics … perhaps a candidacy for a presidential nomination, perhaps contesting Mitch McConnell’s Senate seat before that.
I suspect that, just as people with much larger audiences and clout than myself eventually recognized that Tennessee is doing a good job with its coronavirus testing strategy, Beshear’s political ambitions will eventually be recognized on a much broader scale, as well.