Criticizing the decisions of others during this time of health crisis that COVID-19 has wreaked upon our state and community does little to comfort our people or to de-escalate their growing tensions.
Yet, frustration has a way of forcing a newspaper’s hand; not to put too fine a point on it, but this newspaper’s hand.
In recent weeks, gathering pertinent information regarding the spread of COVID-19 — as it relates to our Cleveland and Bradley County community — has become an exercise in futility, much to the chagrin of our staff writers and editors who want nothing more than to be able to report the facts in a timely fashion … accurately and consistently, as well as with a feeling of partnership with our government and health-care leaders.
However, such expectation for transparency appears to be little more than a fleeting hope.
As of late Tuesday, Bradley County had 10 confirmed cases of infection.
Of these, here’s what we know: The first was described only as being in the Age 41-50 category without a hint as to how the illness was contracted. The third was a Lee University student who had made a personal trip with friends over spring break. Another was a director at Pentecostal Theological Seminary who self-identified through social media.
That’s it. Ten cases, and that’s how little we know. Likely, the count will continue to rise in Bradley County, but we have been given no reason to believe the facts will be any more forthcoming.
Several entities are contributing to our frustration, but foremost among them is the Tennessee Department of Health and the Bradley County Health Department, the latter of which operates under the umbrella of Tennessee Department of Health-Southeast Region.
Perplexed as to how news media outlets in Chattanooga seem to be getting from the Hamilton County Health Department the same types of information we have been seeking from health officials in our community — age category, gender, hospitalizations, potential source of infection — we asked the question.
Here’s the answer we received — paraphrased — from the Tennessee Department of Health-Southeast Region: In larger metro areas like Chattanooga, the Hamilton County Health Department is allowed to speak on its own because infection numbers there are higher, meaning there is less chance of revealing the identity of those who have contracted the disease.
By contrast, updates in rural communities — of which Bradley County is one — are provided through the TDH Southeast Region. Because rural areas have smaller populations and “lower numbers” of infections, there is a greater chance of inadvertently identifying a COVID-19 patient when giving out the same types of information that might otherwise be available in the more populous Hamilton, Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties.
Subsequently, because the Bradley County Health Department is not allowed to speak for its own community, our newspaper must rely on Southeast Region spokespersons. And in crises like COVID-19, they are tight-lipped.
In our opinion, too tight-lipped … to the point that their silence is a disservice, and perhaps a danger, to Tennessee residents — including Cleveland and Bradley County — whose safety hangs in the balance of information flow and blatant obstruction.
Let’s make this perfectly clear: The Cleveland Daily Banner is interested in identifying a COVID-19 diagnosis by name ONLY if the person provides the information willingly (such is the case with the PTS director), or if it is done with that person’s permission by the family, a church, a business, an organization or state health authorities.
What we do want to know, as already suggested, are age category, gender, the severity of symptoms, whether the patient is resting at home or is hospitalized, and how the person might have contracted the illness.
It’s that simple.
To withhold this kind of relevant data, especially when it is available in other parts of the state, and in other states of the nation, goes against the very definition of transparency in both the government and health arenas.
The Tennessee Department of Health is not our newspaper’s only source of frustration during these uncertain times. We have others.
Those thoughts we will share in a future edition.