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Tennessee tracks 'probable' COVID-19 deaths, but doesn't tell public

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Posted at 8:20 PM, Apr 29, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-29 23:22:31-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A new revelation from Gov. Bill Lee’s daily news briefing raises the questions about whether the death toll in Tennessee might be higher than reported.

It turns out, the Tennessee Department of Health has another set of numbers suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but it has kept those numbers to itself.

"We actually do track that because we track all of our data just like the CDC has," Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said during Lee's afternoon news briefing.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates had been asking for weeks to talk to the state’s chief medical examiner about how the Lee administration was tracking the number of deaths from COVID-19.

In an email obtained under the Tennessee Public Records Act, Dr. Adele Lewis had expressed an interest in participating in the interview about how her office is reviewing death certificates to identify possible cases.

"It could be nice to at least get it out there that we are making this huge effort," Lewis wrote, noting that the department's public information officer is "running it up the flagpoles."

The Lee administration never authorized Lewis to talk to NewsChannel 5, despite repeated requests.

In fact, the CDC has encouraged states not only to track the number of confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, but also the probable deaths.

For example, elderly people who die with coronavirus symptoms could be listed as "probable" when tests were never completed to confirm the presence of the virus.

But the Tennessee health commissioner called such probable cases "a mixed bag."

"Some of those pan out to be actual cases or some of them don't," Piercey told reporters.

"We collect that information and have actually had significant discussion on whether or not to post that information. Have no problem doing it. We just don't see that it adds a lot of value until we actually have a confirmed case or not."

In fact, other states have found – when probable cases are considered – the death toll is often much higher.

Piercey's response: "I don't have suspicion that our case count is off."


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.