First Tennessee case of new coronavirus prompts school closures in Williamson County

A Tennessee man who tested positive for the new coronavirus has spurred two school districts in Williamson County to close for a two-day “deep cleaning” of classrooms, while state officials emphasized Thursday that the health risk to the general public is low.

The 44-year-old man is quarantined at his Williamson County home with other members of his family after returning from a business trip to Boston and showing mild symptoms of the respiratory illness.

Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District — located south of Nashville — will be closed Friday and Monday as part of their preparedness plans and “out of an abundance of caution,” according to one statement.

The infected man has one child who attends Battle Ground Academy, a private school in Franklin, which also will be closed on Friday. In a statement, academy leaders said “there is no evidence that the student was infectious at school.”

Tennessee is one of 18 states with coronavirus cases since the first one was reported on Jan. 21 in Oregon. Public health officials have tried to stay ahead of the outbreak, but the disease has moved beyond containment to mitigation.

The fast-spreading illness known as COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China, and has become a worldwide epidemic, killing 3,200 people and infecting another 93,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. Currently, there is no vaccine.

Symptoms can include fever, cough, and trouble breathing. Most people develop only mild symptoms. But some, usually those with other medical issues, develop complications that can include pneumonia, which can be fatal.

“While this is a serious situation, I urge Tennesseans to keep this illness in perspective, as the vast majority of cases are mild and manageable,” Gov. Bill Lee said at a news conference in Nashville. “Simple actions like washing your hands can go a long way in us together helping mitigate the situation.”

A day earlier, the Republican governor activated a task force to coordinate the state’s efforts to prevent and treat COVID-19, with Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, and Mike Krauss of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission among its members.

Schwinn promised school superintendents Thursday that they soon will receive additional guidance beyond what already is available for educators through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This includes further preparedness guidance, deep cleaning guidance, waiver and school closure guidance, as well as reminders about the common sense, everyday practices that individuals can take to help promote health such as hand-washing,” Schwinn wrote in an email.

At the state Capitol, Rep. Antonio Parkinson called for federal funds to help school districts deal with the costs of the coronavirus, including sanitizing schools, paying substitute teachers, and possibly extending the school year if needed due to closures. “This has the potential to require a lot of our schools, staff and students,” said the Memphis Democrat.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who is working with Lee’s administration on budget priorities, said state funds likely will be set aside to help with several emergencies that hit Middle Tennessee this week, including the coronavirus and a deadly tornado that shredded parts of the region.

In Williamson County, parents had braced for arrival of the coronavirus to Tennessee but had not necessarily expected it to start in their community.

“I think a lot of parents are divided — some are really concerned with coronavirus, and some are just dealing with the flu at their home,” said one mom who asked not to be identified as she waited for her son at a bus stop. “I’m a geriatric nurse, so I’m frankly more worried right now about my patients.”