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Nashville still providing COVID-19 data to first responders

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI and ADRIAN SAINZ Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Top health officials say Thursday that Nashville will continue providing private medical data of COVID-19 patients to first responders despite the state's recently determining doing so created a false sense of security for those on the front line.

Gov. Bill Lee's administration announced earlier this week that the state would soon halt providing first responders the names and addresses of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. The state had been doing so since early April after law enforcement officials said the information was vital to preventing the spread of the virus.

Lee's administration has since changed course, arguing that protective equipment is more readily available and that first responders should take precautions with everyone, given that so many people with the virus are asymptomatic or present mild symptoms.

Civil liberties and community advocates have also expressed repeated concerns of potential profiling in African American and Hispanic communities that already have an uneasy relationship with law enforcement.

On Thursday, Nashville Public Health Director Dr. Michael Caldwell defended the policy, saying the patient data is a valuable tool to police officers, firefighters, EMTs and others responding to emergency calls.

"I am puzzled by why the state reversed course," Caldwell said.

"Our policy is temporary. It is working. We have and we will continue all that we can to protect the public health workforce and our partners in a balanced and respectful approach," he added.

Meanwhile, health officials in Shelby County — which encompasses Memphis — say they are continuing to provide first responders with addresses of COVID-19 patients, but not names.

However, a county health spokeswoman said in an email that Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter "will explore further and make a decision regarding ongoing data sharing in the upcoming week."

Nashville and Shelby County are two of the six metro areas not part of the Tennessee Department of Health's jurisdiction, which allows them to stray from the state's position. Yet that doesn't mean those areas are breaking with the state.

Health officials in Hamilton County— which includes Chattanooga — stopped using the data earlier this month when it was eventually revealed that the state was providing COVID-19 information to law enforcement and others.

Knox County never provided the data, according to Amy Dolinky with the Knox County COVID-19 Joint Information Center.

"(We) support the decision the Governor has made," Dolinky said in an email. "We understand the desire of first responders to receive this information, but we continue to recommend that all responders follow universal precautions and treat anyone that they have contact with as potentially infectious."

First responders in Jackson-Madison County had been receiving patient data from the state, but no longer, said Regional Director Kim Tedford.

"If they wanted to continue getting that information, it would come from the county but so far we have not seen that request," Tedford said. "That could change."

An Associated Press review that found public officials in at least two-thirds of states are sharing the addresses of people who tested positive with first responders. A small handful of those states, including Tennessee at the time, also shared the patients' names.

In other virus related news ,the state labor department reported Thursday that 26,041 new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending Saturday. That represents a slight drop from 28,692 the week before, the department said.

More than $375 million in unemployment benefits was paid out last week, with the entire amount coming in the form of federal funds distributed under the federal CARES Act, the emergency assistance package created to deal with financial effects from the virus response, the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development said.

In past weeks, Tennessee has tapped a trust fund used to pay state unemployment benefits.

Tennessee reached its highest monthly unemployment rate ever in April as the state managed public safety concerns raised by the new coronavirus outbreak by closing nonessential businesses, a move that has led to more than a half-million jobless claims since mid-March. The department reported last week that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April was 14.7%.

The state's highest seasonally adjusted rate had been 12.9%, which occurred in December 1982 and January 1983, the department said.

Separately, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the city is teaming with the YMCA to offer free child care for essential workers at more than 20 community centers.

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