Nashville is also known as Music City, the home of country music and the Grand Ole Opry. For music lovers, there is no better place to go than Broadway, where dozens of bars and restaurants have live bands playing beginning mid-morning and continuing well into the night. City leaders hid the low number of COVID-19 cases tied back to these venues, and Americans are wondering why.
Tourism is a large part of the city’s revenue. And the downtown area is a huge attraction. Yet Fox 17 in Nashville obtained e-mails that appear to expose a deliberate attempt to keep low transmission numbers in bars and restaurants from the public.
The coronavirus cases on lower Broadway may have been so low that the mayor’s office and the metro health department decided to keep it secret.
Emails between the mayor’s senior advisor and the health department reveal only a partial picture. But what they reveal is disturbing.
The discussion involves the low number of coronavirus cases emerging from bars and restaurants and how to handle that. And most disturbingly how to keep it from the public.
Weird! I thought bars and restaurants were a huge problem, and young, healthy people were supposed to stay out of them to save grandma. Apparently not in Nashville. While contact tracing as of June 30th showed clusters in nursing homes and on construction sites of over 1,000 cases each, bars and restaurants reported only twenty-two cases.
Read this damning section of the e-mails between the health department and the mayor’s senior advisor:
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Leslie Waller from the health department asks “This isn’t going to be publicly released, right? Just info for Mayor’s Office?”
“Correct, not for public consumption.” Writes senior advisor Benjamin Eagles.
The best-case scenario is at the end of June, Waller was concerned this might lead to more people going into bars and restaurants, leading to increased cases. However, rumors in the community persisted for the next month that only 80 cases were traced to bars and restaurants. The Nashville tracking shows by the end of July, the peak of new positive tests had passed.
The health department faced tough questions about the rumor:
Tennessean reporter Nate Rau asks “the figure you gave of ‘more than 80’ does lead to a natural question: If there have been over 20,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in Davidson and only 80 or so are traced to restaurants and bars, doesn’t that mean restaurants and bars aren’t a very big problem?
Health department official Brian Todd asks 5 health department officials: Please advise how you recommend I respond.
The name at the top of the response is clipped off but you may find the answer unacceptable.
“My two cents. We have certainly refused to give counts per bar because those numbers are low per site.
“We could still release the total though, and then a response to the over 80 could be ‘because that number is increasing all the time and we don’t want to say a specific number.'”
By that time, why would public health officials be trying to manipulate this information? According to the city’s website, Nashville was in Phase 2 reopening as of May 25th. Bars and restaurants were operating at 75% capacity, and live entertainment venues were operating under similar guidelines.
As of the end of June, these guidelines had resulted in 20 positive tests. Without an understanding of whether any of these 20 individuals suffered severe disease, hospitalization, or death, it is impossible to say if they were actual cases, especially with what we know about the sensitivity of the PCR test. Up to 90% of such tests are not detecting a virus that can cause illness or be transmitted.
The entire city went back to a modified Phase 2 on July 3rd. This reduced capacity at bars and restaurants to 50%. One has to wonder if that was really necessary. When cases ballooned to 20,000 in the county, bars and restaurants were credited with about 80. Again, with no insight into the severity of illness, that is still only 0.4% of total positive tests.
By the end of July, the bar and restaurant industry exerted pressure on Nashville, aiming to return to 75% capacity with extended hours. Why the City of Nashville would object to this is a mystery, especially since retail outlets were allowed to continue to operate at a higher capacity.
From the September 1st update, Nashville is still operating under modified Phase 2, despite the fact that the city has no issue with ICU beds, has experienced 14 days of declining positive tests, has a transmission rate of 1.02, and has less than 20 new positive tests per 100,000. The metrics board is mostly green and yellow by minimal amounts. For example, the transmission rate goal is 1.0 and is currently at 1.02. That’s really not close enough? Sixteen percent of the county’s hospital floor beds are open, 20% is the goal.
Public health professionals need to get a lot more granular in the data they report. Of new positive cases, how many people are going to the hospital or even having symptoms? If contact tracing is being done, the public deserves to know where the bulk of transmissions are happening. The fact that it appears Nashville leaders were trying to obscure that information, especially for a core industry in the city employing thousands, should enrage business owners.
It should also make all of us skeptical of the information we are being given and demand more granular data.