You no longer have to be sick to get tested for novel coronavirus in Tennessee.
Well ahead of the national curve on testing for Covid-19 illness, Tennessee has reversed earlier guidelines to make tests available — for free, through the state’s public lab — to anyone who wants to be tested, regardless of symptoms.
In fact, Tennessee wants people to be tested — even encourages it. On Sunday, the day of a free drive-through testing clinic in Jacksboro, electronic signboards were placed along nearby Interstate 75 directing motorists to the testing location if they wanted to be tested. New advertisements placed by the office of Gov. Bill Lee in newspapers across the state urge residents to, “When in doubt, get a test.” As the Lee administration makes masks freely available in each of the state’s 95 health departments, beginning today (hundreds are available at the Scott County Health Department in Huntsville), the state hopes that residents will take advantage of the free tests while they’re there to pick up their masks.
There’s just one catch: Anyone who is tested, regardless of the symptoms they may be experiencing, has to self-quarantine while awaiting the results of their test, which can take 3-to-5 days.
That means no going to work, for those who are still working. It means no visiting friends, or going to church, or even going to the grocery store for necessities. Until test results are received, those people are required to stay inside their home.
Asking people to self-isolate if they believe they have Covid-19 is a no-brainer; no one should be exposing others to the disease if they reasonably believe they may be carrying the virus. But the requirement for all who are tested to self-quarantine, regardless of symptoms, is an antiquated requirement; a holdover from several weeks ago — when tests were limited to people who showed specific symptoms or who had been exposed to someone diagnosed with a coronavirus infection.
It’s a requirement that isn’t particularly well-known, because it has not been widely publicized. On April 18, the first day of the state’s weekend drive-thru testing clinics, there were more than 6,500 people tested at 22 testing sites across the state — but only 28 in Scott County. In fact, Scott County was easily the least-utilized of the testing sites; even in rural counties, like this one, hundreds of people were tested at most sites. Even in tiny Pickett County, which hasn’t had a single confirmed case of coronavirus, there were nearly 150 people tested that day.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Scott County was one of the few places — and perhaps the only place, though the Independent Herald cannot confirm that — where the self-quarantine requirement was publicized prior to the testing date. Many people who would otherwise be tested balk at the idea of required self-isolation while their results are awaited.
Several people have contacted the IH to inquire about the self-isolation requirement, surprised to learn of it. Some went ahead with getting tested; others changed their mind.
If the goal is to test as many people as possible in order to develop data that will help direct officials’ decision-making as economic functions resume, isn’t it time to drop the antiquated requirement that most people — who wanted to be tested but aren’t showing specific symptoms — self-quarantine until their test results return? Wouldn’t that encourage more people to be tested?
The administration of Gov. Bill Lee has made some missteps in its response to the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps none more notable than the initial delay in allowing some close-contact businesses to reopen in rural Tennessee even as businesses in the same industries were preparing to reopen in urban areas. Overall, though, it’s tough to argue with the state’s response to this pandemic. In terms of deaths and hospitalizations per capita, Tennessee has been hit much less harshly than most of its neighbors in the Southeast region, and there is no state that is doing a better job at testing for coronavirus than Tennessee.
Whether it’s leadership, good fortune or a combination of the two, Tennessee is able to test anyone and everyone who wants to be tested. That still isn’t the case in some states; there are areas where there are still limitations on who can be tested.
As Tennessee has increased its testing, it has found — specifically through tests at state prisons and homeless shelters — that a significant number of people who have been infected with Covid-19 are asymptomatic. That’s an important thing to know, because while there is still some scientific debate over the spread of the disease, the belief is that asymptomatic carriers are responsible for aiding the spread. The only way to determine all of these asymptomatic people are through increased testing. And if they’re tested, these asymptomatic people — who feel fine, with no obvious signs of illness — are going to be among the very people who are going to be more likely to refuse testing because they don’t want — or can’t afford — to self-isolate.
In the interest of furthering Gov. Lee’s desire to test even more people, and in the interest of helping the administration develop accurate data that can guide the state’s response to this pandemic, it seems like the answer is yes. Yes, it’s time to drop the antiquated requirement that asymptomatic people without known exposure to the coronavirus self-isolate while awaiting test results.
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