This week in coronavirus: On the eve of an election, COVID-19 is worse than ever

Brett Kelman
Nashville Tennessean

The coronavirus outbreak in Tennessee is now worse than it has ever been.

The outbreak is much larger and more volatile than it was in March, when the state shut down to slow the virus, and it has exceeded all the peaks of July, when the virus ran rampant in Nashville and Memphis.

Coronavirus now spreads in every corner of Tennessee, and the state is regularly setting new records for infections, hospitalizations and deaths. As of Thursday afternoon, the state was recording an average of 2,700 infections and 36 deaths per day. Nearly 1,400 Tennesseans were hospitalized with the virus.

Tennesseans may have once believed the worst was behind us, but virus data leaves no doubt that it is not. Gov. Bill Lee confirmed last week the ongoing surge of the virus has grown "beyond" all prior surges. Eight months into this pandemic, the state has never been in such a dire spot, and the dangers and pitfalls that lie ahead are unknown.

In the midst of this outbreak, the Lee Administration last week did something it has been unwilling to do before – contradict President Donald Trump on coronavirus. Trump in recent weeks repeatedly insisted the virus is not surging and the high number of new infections is merely the result of increased testing.

On Wednesday, while flanked by the governor, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey gave unprompted statements that directly contradicted the president, although she did not say his name.

“Cases are up. Positivity rate is up. And hospitalizations are at an all time high,” Piercey said. “I want you to hear this clearly: I don’t want you to fall into the narrative of thinking ‘Oh, that’s just because we are testing more.’ Actually, our testing is pretty stable. We’ve always been a strong testing state and we continue to remain that way. We do believe this is actually an increase of transmission.”

Tennesseans will face this very real surge when they go to the polls on Tuesday to cast their vote in the presidential election. Voting in person could lead to exposure risk, but there are simple steps that can minimize the risk of being infected while voting.

First, everyone should wear a mask to the polls. (However, do not wear an overtly political mask because it will not be allowed inside.) Second, keep six feet of distance while waiting in line to vote. While this will make voting lines appear much longer than normal, it will deter infection.

Joshua Haynes wears a mask while in line for early voting at the Bellevue Library in Nashville on the first day of early voting in Tennessee on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.

Once inside, expect to encounter poll workers who are dressed head to toe in protective equipment. Many poll workers are older – and therefore more vulnerable to the virus – so its critical they take steps to protective themselves from large crowds of voters.

To prevent the spread of the virus through shared objects, voters will be given single use pens and operate touchscreens with a disposable stylus (it’s a plastic coffee stirrer.) Generally, you should try to touch as few objects as possible while at the polls.

Finally, if you actually have coronavirus on Election Day, you should not go to the polls but there will still be a framework for you to vote. Call your local county election commission to get the details.

Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.