May 12: Here’s why it matters if a surge in cases belongs to the prison or not

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On Tuesday Tipton County’s number of confirmed cases grew by 22 more cases.

It’s not yet known why.

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Yesterday, the day-over-day number of confirmed cases grew by 214. At least 171 of those were attributed to the outbreak at the West Tennessee Detention Facility in Mason, but the remaining 42 cases haven’t yet been connected with an outbreak.

Neither the U.S. Marshals nor CoreCivic, which owns the prison, will confirm to the media, or even County Executive Jeff Huffman, the updated number of confirmed cases since mass testing began last week.

“Once we have all results returned and share with our government partner, the information will be publicly available,” said Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs.

Why is it important to know the numbers?

It’s important to understand the details about confirmed cases in order to make informed decisions about our own behavior in public settings.

“There’s a difference between those numbers being community transmissions or institutional transmissions,” Huffman said.

An outbreak amongst inmates does not necessarily pose as big a risk to public health as one which also includes the prison employees who live and work amongst the remainder of Tipton County’s population. Huffman noted the employees are not limited from interacting with the public at retail establishments and dining facilities.

We’re testing more people, so the numbers are going up, right?

Increased testing will usually lead to an increase in confirmed cases.

Through March, there were 163 tests completed and 21 positive cases. This means 12.94 percent of those tested came back with positive results and an average of 1.67 new cases per day.

April saw 1,150 tests – an average of 38.33 per day – and 6.7 percent of those tested were positive. The average number of confirmed cases per day was 2.77.

So far this month there have been 1,297 tests conducted from Tipton County, which is an average of 84 per day. There have been 289 more confirmed cases, bringing the month-to-date average of positive cases to 30.45 percent of those tested. The average number of new confirmed cases is 24.08 per day through May 12.

Mass testing is also being conducted at the Mason prison, but it is not known how many tests have been conducted or how many positives there have been. The 600-bed facility also employs 165 people.

Tennessee has been aggressively testing its residents and 4.54 percent of Tipton Countians have been tested. The state has also been conducting mass testing with Tennessee Department of Corrections inmates, due to large outbreaks at several others prisons, however that testing did not include WTDF because it houses federal inmates.

Those new cases are all at the prison, though, right?

Though there have been 236 new confirmed cases since Sunday, it’s hard to determine how many of those are in the prison without confirmation by the Tennessee Department of Health, CoreCivic or the U.S. Marshals.

The Leader has been working for two days to confirm these numbers.

“The dramatic surge in our positive case numbers is due to the prison in Mason finally testing everyone and, so far, there have been 250 positive cases of the virus,” Huffman said via email on Monday. “COVID is really sweeping through that facility.  So Tipton County’s number are going to skyrocket due primarily to the situation at the prison.”

Prior to Monday’s 214-case increase, the prison was reporting 79 inmates had tested positive. No employees had tested positive at the time, CoreCivic said.

With 79 cases already identified, that means 171 have been attributed to the prison’s 250-case total and 65 others have not been.

The Tennessee Department of Health has not identified any other cluster in Tipton County, but would not confirm how many total cases have been confirmed at the prison.

So, the number of community transmissions and institutional transmissions still remains unknown.

Does it matter how it’s being transmitted?

Knowing whether or not a large increase of cases is coming from the re-opening of retail and dining establishments or circulated around a prison may affect the behavior of the general public. Some may choose to stay home a little longer or ensure they’re wearing protective equipment, though others may not.

Or, after a large increase, the means of transmission may affect the operations of businesses.

“How am I supposed to make the best decisions for this county if I don’t know how it’s being transmitted?” Huffman asked.

He encouraged the county commissioners to stay positive and discussed continually adjusting strategy during the pandemic based on data from the health department.

“Predictability and the ability to pretty much know what the future holds is jeopardized and that is certainly unnerving,” he said. “I look at it this way … when we take a trip down a road at night, we can only see as far as our headlights will shine. We don’t know what is beyond our headlights really. But here is the point, we can make the whole trip this way, and we can do it safely, and, at some point during the trip, the sun will shine and the distance we can see will get back to normal. My job is to make sure that the headlights are burning as brightly as possible for as long as possible so we can make the trip together safely.”

The Leader will continue its effort to confirm numbers of positive cases.

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