A conference call between Nashville health officials and council members on Thursday revealed a deep and continuing divide over the city’s practice of sharing names and addresses of COVID-19 positive individuals with law enforcement.
In one of the most heated moments of the 40-minute call, Dr. Alex Jahangir — chair of Nashville health department known for his calm delivery in daily COVID-19 briefings — angrily suggested that Council Member Freddie O’Connell pay for his own constituents’ testing at private labs if they were discouraged from seeking public testing.
Jahangir’s remarks, in audio heard by Tennessee Lookout, came after O’Connell said he has stopped promoting universal testing at public sites because he can’t assure residents about what will happen with their private medical information.
Other members of the Nashville Metro Council also told health officials that residents are fearful of seeking COVID-19 testing because their names and addresses would be shared with Nashville police. The elected officials cited a long and controversial history of Nashville law enforcement cooperating with immigration authorities and a disparate treatment of African-Americans.
“What I keep hearing is people are afraid to go get tested and people ask if it’s OK, and it’s very hard having that conversation with them when you have a lot of people saying my information is still getting shared with law enforcement,” Council Member Sandra Sepulveda, who represents a south Nashville district with a large immigrant population, told health officials.
“I can preach all day and say their information gets deleted after a certain period of time, but historically the way the immigrant community has responded to the way information gets shared goes very poorly,” she said.
The practice of sharing names and addresses of COVID-19-positive individuals began in April when state officials, at the behest of Gov. Bill Lee, offered to deliver daily lists to sheriffs and police chiefs across the state.
Lee, after pushback from legislators, immigrant rights groups and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, agreed to end the practice at the end of May. In ending the practice, the governor said the information-sharing had been a short-term solution to providing law enforcement with critical information that could keep them safe in the absence of adequate protective gear. Since then law enforcement across the state has received supplies of personal protective equipment.
Nashville health officials began their own information sharing with law enforcement and other first responders. At a Thursday press conference, they said the practice will continue, although police have instituted additional procedures to purge names of recovered patients each week and addresses once a month.
Those procedures did not placate Nashville’s elected council members.
“How many lives are we impacting if we have this policy versus how many lives can be put at risk if a huge portion of our population does not get tested out of fear?,” Sepulveda asked.
O’Connell said he has “personally stopped promoting our universal testing program because I represent a high number of vulnerable populations.”
“I have literally been contacted by people who said they won’t get tested,” he said. “If the perspective is protecting law enforcement then adequate personal protective equipment should be the solution to that. This is not the right balance and we should suspend it.”
O’Connell’s comments drew a rebuke from Jahangir.
“Our assessment sites have saved lives and provided free care,” Jahinger said. “With due respect, it is concerning to me to hear you are actively not promoting a system that has given access to 67 percent of individuals who are non-white. Unless you are able to pay for their testing elsewhere, please do not discourage people from getting tested.”
Dr. Michael Caldwell, Nashville’s public health director, emphasized the city needed to marshall all available resources in dealing with a deadly virus.
The information-sharing practice is intended not only to prevent exposure between law enforcement officers and individuals, but prevent infected individuals from entering emergency rooms and jails, he said.
“I’m the director of public health and I’m trying to use all the tools in my toolbox,” Caldwell told councilmembers. “My valuation right now is quite clear that, had we had an introduction of the virus that we could have stopped in any of our medical or legal institutions, we could have had the problems that Trousdale County has.”
In Trousdale County, more than 1,800 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19.
“This is not easy and we will continue to have these conversations,” Caldwell said. “I am doing my best to guide us through to eliminate this virus as best as we can.”
“I think you are misinterpreting what you are seeing,” Caldwell told councilmembers who expressed concern about people in immigrant communities in southeast Nashville avoiding testing so their information is not shared with law enforcement.
“The fact we know there is a big problem in southeast Nashville is because people are being tested,” he said. “if there were no cases then you would have a problem with the director of public health.”
Councilmembers continued to push back.
“If the concern is about council members not providing and discouraging testing, my concern, especially looking at southeast Nashville, is how many will contract the virus because they are scared of being tested?” asked Russ Bradford, a council member representing southeast Nashville.
“The concern is that, yes, we see cases because people got tested before we had this policy,” Bradford said.
The contentious conversation between officials charged with representing the interests of all Nashvillians also focused on the transparency of public health officials.
Elected officials did not learn of the information sharing until it was reported by Tennessee Lookout, they said.
“I’m a little stunned by the tone of this conversation that has occurred,” said Colby Sledge.
“I understand the passion from a public health standpoint and our goal is to see constituents getting tested and having the trust in government that Council Member Bradford referred to,” he said.
“I think what you’re hearing from me and others is that we’re being asked to trust in a process that is not transparent and it’s frankly not transparent when we find this information from media reports and then we’re told to go out to our constituents and trust in the government that we are having trouble getting information from.”