COVID-19 Briefing

Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist William Schaffner (right) stands alongside Centennial Medical Center chief of staff Chris Jones (left) to address state legislators about the COVID-19 virus at the state Capital Building in Nashville Monday.

As schools, governments and businesses continue to scramble in order to contain the spread of the CODVID-19 virus, Tennessee legislators on Monday held a question and answer briefing at the Capitol in Nashville, where legislators representing counties from Williamson and Davidson asked leading health experts a handful of questions.

Among the health experts featured at the briefing were Centennial Medical Center chief of staff Chris Jones and Vanderbilt infectious disease specialist William Schaffner.

“President Trump has declared a national emergency, and he added that the next eight weeks are critical — Governor Lee has also declared a state emergency,” Jones said. “When emergencies occur, we act in new ways decisively and strongly. Thankfully, we have the advantage of seeing what happens in other countries so that we can guide our own actions.”

Jones delivered his opening monologue to what was a half-empty chamber, with state legislators spread well apart as a measure to practice safe social distancing, which is a collection of behaviors designed to help stop the spread of infectious disease.

“A delayed response, like that of Italy, will lead to the same health care resource depletion," he said. "Some hospitals in Italy have been forced into terrible scenarios, like deciding that only younger patients will be placed on breathing machines. Or, we can follow the better example of countries like South Korea, where early recognition of the problem and institution of measures like social distancing have led to continued normalcy of health care operations.”

Jones noted that Tennesseans should not expect the virus to pass in just two weeks’ time, and that following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines would be required in order to stop the exponential spread of COVID-19. 

Jones also said many younger Tennesseans believe that the disease is only serious to older Tennesseans or those with compromised immune systems, and said that thought pattern was dissuading from practicing proper social distancing. This mentality, Jones argued, was flawed given the fact that in South Korea, the highest percentage of COVID-19 cases were in those aged 20-40, and that even with a higher rate of recovery, younger carriers of the virus are just as infectious as older ones.

Following Jones’ remarks, Schaffner took the the podium to answer questions from state legislators.

Questions from state legislators are paraphrased. Names of legislators asking the questions are not included as the live stream from the Capitol was not panning to legislators or noting their names as they asked questions.

When we start testing, are we testing anyone, or only people displaying symptoms of COVID-19?

WS: At the moment, testing resources all across the country are somewhat limited, so the focus will be indeed on people who are symptomatic. I think there will be an emphasis on older persons, because although they’re not more likely to get infected, when they do get infected, they’re more likely to have severe disease. In addition to that group, [there will also be an emphasis on] anyone who has a notable underlying medical condition such as heart disease, lung disease [or] diabetes.

Could you walk us through how health departments are partnering with our clinical community?

WS: I think you probably have referenced the fact that this is a respiratory virus, and there is the anticipation — or perhaps I should say the hope — that like other respiratory viruses such as influenza, once the weather gets warmer, this outbreak will abate and will go down. We can hope that that’s true, but please remember that this is a respiratory virus that’s new to humans, and as I like to quip, I’m not sure it’s read the textbook. So we can hope for that, but we can’t count on it. We have to remain prepared to deal with this virus over the long haul.

From all indications, we’re trending a couple percentage points ahead of Italy right now. What can we as a society expect the worse case scenario to be here in Tennessee?

WS: The worst case scenario is one that you have to acknowledge and prepare for, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. I will tell you something that’s slightly optimistic. If this virus is out there as widely as we think, we have not yet been hit in Tennessee, or really throughout the country, with a surge of patients that have come to the hospitals with pneumonia as they did with China. Now, whether that’s a difference in the transmission and we’re ahead of it already, or whether perhaps in general we’re healthier than the population in Wuhan, China, I don’t know, but I’m of the guarded optimism that we won’t hit the worse end of the spectrum.

Can you contract this virus from animals?

WS: The original coronavirus that caused this epidemic was an animal coronavirus that jumped species, as we say. It probably was a single event that occurred in a live market in Wuhan, China, if you can imagine. All the other people who have been made sick around the world came from that one instance, so you can’t acquire this virus from any other animal.