NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The state of Tennessee, despite facing an unprecedented explosion of COVID-19 cases, plans to scale back testing offered through local state-run health departments as soon as next week, NewsChannel 5 has learned.
Employees of the Tennessee Department of Health have been informed that, instead of testing, the local health departments will place a higher priority on vaccine distribution. Gov. Bill Lee, they were told, has personally approved the plan.
Infectious disease experts are concerned about the plan.
"Right now, there's a lot of disease activity across the state of Tennessee, and we're detecting that disease activity in part through aggressive testing," said Dr. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt's School of Medicine.
"So I am concerned that if testing scales back, we may get a false sense of security if we start to see tests reflecting lower cases when that may be more of a reflection of fewer people being tested."
Currently, most local health departments offer COVID testing five days a week, with professional staff collecting the samples.
Under the plan, COVID-19 testing would be reduced to just Tuesday and Thursday.
Cutting back on testing in face of record surges in COVID-19 cases is puzzling, especially since Christmas holiday is likely to trigger same surge as seen for Thanksgiving. I hope Governor Lee will reconsider this decision. Testing and masks are still key to controlling COVID19. https://t.co/Z3vk1buJiT— James E.K. Hildreth (@JamesEKHildreth) December 15, 2020
Vaccine distribution would occur on Monday, Wednesday and Friday - with Everlywell home collection kits being offered on those days for Tennesseans who may want testing. With home collection kits, individuals collect the swabs themselves and ship them off to a lab.
Insiders say, however, they have been told that supplies of those home collection kits are limited.
It is absolutely, positively, 100% insane to “scale back testing” right now as Tennessee has just had two days in a row with over 10,000 new cases. How are these decisions getting made right now? https://t.co/biHagfP6WY— Jeff Yarbro (@yarbro) December 14, 2020
Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Shelley Walker did not deny any of the specifics outlined by state health department employees for NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"Any announcements on planned changes to testing schedules will be made by the Department of Health in the near future, but I can tell you that free testing will continue to be available five days a week at state-run health departments," Walker said by email.
"As you know, the vast majority of COVID-19 tests in Tennessee are conducted by private providers and any change by the state department would not affect that availability.
"With the state now incorporating vaccine distribution into our response, it’s imperative we make department staff available to help distribute the vaccine to Tennesseans.
Still, Aronoff cautioned, "Tennessee remains one of the most active states for disease activity in the United States. Our hospitals are quite full with patients suffering from COVID-19.
"If we take our eye off the ball and don't see how the disease is behaving in our state, that could have serious repercussions for how prepared we are as we head into winter."
Independent health departments like those in Tennessee's biggest cities would not be affected by the plan.
Late Monday, the Tennessee Department of Health issued the following press release:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Department of Health COVID-19 testing sites across the state will begin offering self-testing kits to adults three days a week December 21, to allow staff members to transition to vaccination of frontline health care providers and first responders. Local county health departments will continue to offer COVID-19 testing five days a week at no charge for anyone who wishes to be tested.
“We’re making this transition so our Department of Health staff can assist with administration of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “State-run health departments currently collect an average of only 16 percent of all COVID-19 tests statewide, and our change will not affect the wide availability of testing through private providers in Tennessee. While the arrival of vaccines is welcome, it is imperative that we not let up on basic best practices and continue to protect each other by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and staying home when sick.”
The new COVID-19 self-tests will be offered to adults on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays beginning Dec. 21. On these days, public health staff members at each TDH COVID-19 testing site will provide self-testing kits to adults who wish to be tested. Individuals will remain in their vehicles while completing paperwork and collecting their samples. Health departments will submit the samples for testing.
Adults tested with the new self-tests will register and receive their results online. The self-tests are not approved for use in children under age 18. Children and adults unable to register online can still receive the standard nasal swab COVID-19 tests on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Test results may be available within 72 hours of arrival at the lab, depending on the volume of tests the testing lab receives. Information will be provided to participants at testing locations on what they can expect after being tested. This information is also available online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/TestedGuidance.pdf [tn.gov].
COVID-19 testing is widely available in Tennessee from local health departments and other health care providers. A map of COVID-19 testing sites across the state is available at www.tn.gov/content/tn/health/cedep/ncov/remote-assessment-sites.html [tn.gov]. Hours of operation and contact information are provided for each site.
TDH county health departments will be closed and will not offer COVID-19 testing Dec. 24 – 25 and Dec. 31, 2020 – Jan. 1, 2021 in observance of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.