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Analysis: No, Commissioner, that's not what it said

Lisa Piercey AP photo 2.jpg
Posted at 5:50 PM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-29 23:12:20-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey has defended the failure to catch outbreaks of COVID-19 inside the state's prisons by claiming that inmates are testing positive without showing symptoms at an unusually high rate.

The health commissioner has claimed that "about 98 percent of them are completely asymptomatic."

"It's a very interesting scientific phenomenon," Piercey said Thursday, repeating her claim from last week that it was "a head-scratcher."

The commissioner claimed that it was such an interesting scientific phenomenon that it drew the attention of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in the latest publication of its highly respected Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

"They put out a weekly report of sorta hot topics, and this was the one that came out just yesterday about this very high asymptomatic rate," Piercey said in response to a reporter's question.

"It appears to be somewhat unique to these contained populations."

That publication did focus on correctional and detention facilities, warning of significant challenges in controlling the spread of highly infectious pathogens."

But there is only one reference in the four-page report to asymptomatic transmission, and it does not refer to anything unique among prisons.

It's about nursing homes.

"An investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak in a skilled nursing facility found that approximately one half of cases identified through facility-wide testing were among asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic persons, who likely contributed to transmission," the authors noted.

"These data indicate that symptom screening alone is inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities."

In fact, as NewsChannel 5 Investigates first reported, Piercey herself had warned long-term care facilities about that very issue after an outbreak inside a Gallatin nursing home.

Related: Did Tennessee ignore warning signs about COVID-19 spread in prisons?

"Recent experience suggests that a substantial proportion of residents could have COVID-19 detected without reporting symptoms or before symptoms develop," Piercey said in a March 28 memo to the facilities.

But, despite that concern about asymptomatic spread, Tennessee's health commissioner continued to insist for another month that there was no need to test prison inmates until they showed symptoms.

Prisoners had to get sick first.

As a result, 1,285 inmates were infected at Trousdale Turner Correctional Complex, while 586 contracted the virus at Bledsoe County Correctional Complex.

One inmate has now died.

On Tuesday, in response to questions from NewsChannel 5 Investigates, Piercey denied that she should have acted more decisively based on the experience with asymptomatic spread inside a nursing home.

In fact, that's exactly what the latest report from the CDC says should be the lesson.

You can read the MMWR report, COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities — United States, February–April 2020, for yourself.


See all our coronavirus coverage here


What is COVID-19 (a.k.a. the new coronavirus?)

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Examples include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV)and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. COVID-19 stands for "Coronavirus disease 2019," which is when this strain of the coronavirus was discovered.

What are the symptoms?

The CDC says patients confirmed to have the 2019-nCoV reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Or at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

At this time, the CDC believes symptoms could appear as soon as two days after exposure, or as long as 14 days.


The CDC is recommending "common sense" measures such as:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.