This is a summary of a press conference Gov. Bill Lee held May 28 on COVID-19, as well as reopening guidelines for higher education, noncontact sports and summer camps.
He often speaks with other governors. They are enviable of the response of Tennesseans to COVID-19 and natural disasters.
As of last week, 400,000 tests had been done. That is the equivalent of 6 percent of the state population. (He did not say if that includes multiple tests done on some people.)
1,000 healthcare workers are on-call to staff surge hospitals.
Testing is important as people go on vacation this summer. Test numbers have reduced in the past two weeks in some counties.
CVS Pharmacy today announced it would open 18 test centers in the state.
We have a tremendous financial challenge. The Legislature will convene. I will work with them on the budget.
Consumers can have confidence when shopping. Businesses adopted the Tennessee Pledge.
This weekend, the Food City 500 will happen. There will be no fans, but it is live racing nonetheless.
Marie Williams, Mental Health:
A new public-private partnership is for healthcare workers and first responders needing mental care. Call 888-642-7886 from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Community behavioral health centers are available 24-7. Text “TN” to 741-741.
Jeff McCord, Labor Department:
County unemployment data: As a state, 14.7 percent is the unemployment rate. This mirrors the national average. At the county level, all 95 counties saw unemployment go up in April. 3 counties had rates under 10 percent. Sevier at 29.5 percent was the highest.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health Department:
21,679 is the case count. 14,632 recovered. Act is under 6,700. 5.2 percent is the positivity rate.
Long-term care facilities: We are working with the industry for all to be tested. That is nearly done. We will allow a couple weeks’ grace. 60 percent of sites are done or are scheduled. 20 percent have material needs only, and we got a PPE shipment which can help. 20 percent need staffing, and so the National Guard can help. Then the sites will do weekly retesting of staff.
Nursing home civil monetary penalty reinvestment fund: This allows us to improve the quality of care. We gave $363,000 to 40 percent of nursing homes in the state for technology to use for social interaction and telehealth to talk to family and medical providers.
We want to reopen homes for visits.
Prisons: 4 new cases in Northwest facility; one is in the hospital. They were previously negative in mid-May.
There was a question on the state sharing data on COVID-19 patients with law enforcement.
Lee: They did not have PPE to protect them as they engaged with the public and we wanted for them to be protected. We made that decision to allow for protection. We also knew personal information is important to protect so we said we would get PPE and then give them and that is what we did.
Followup: Do you have a response to Nashville continuing to do that, and the health director there said he is puzzled by your decision to stop sharing the data.
Lee: We knew all along it would be temporary.
Q: You said you do not want everyone to have an absentee ballot. Today the Black Caucus asked you to allow it for anyone if it can save lives. Have you changed your position?
Lee: Free and fair elections are important. We will use policies to keep people safe as we are doing in businesses. I don’t think we need … no-excuse absentee voting.
Followup: Why would it not be necessary for someone who is immunocompromised?
Lee: Anyone can pursue the available options, and there are options for people, but no-excuse absentee is not necessary.
A reporter asked about the protest in Memphis over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and whether that was an injustice.
Lee: It is horrific. It is heartbreaking. It is unacceptable. I do think the officers should be brought to justice. I spoke to black leaders and police leaders today. We agreed the situation is a disturbing trend and we have to call out police brutality. I support law enforcement. Police brutality is not law enforcement. It should not be accepted in this state.
Q: On an absentee voting … other states do more absentee voting and have a higher turnout.
Lee: You don’t need to do something that is not necessary. We don’t need it because it opens up opportunities for fraud, challenges that our state is not available to address.
Followup: These are arguments made in your name. Is expanding the availability …
Lee: I have expressed my views on this.
Q: Chattanooga is No. 4 for a potential outbreak coming up next, according to the New York Times. What is your response and would you consider mandating masks or something?
Lee: We have a very strong plan to address outbreaks. We will expand testing there.
Q: Budget shortfall: You told agencies to identify 12 percent cuts. What are your commitments to K-12 and BEP and the 2 percent teacher pay increase in the budget and literacy initiative and funding a school choice program?
Lee: The shortfall shows the challenge we have. We are committed to continue BEP funding. The Legislature will decide all the other issues. There will be difficult decisions.
Q: There is talk in the Legislature about the state of emergency and executive orders and if the Legislature should have more input, especially with shutting down businesses and data sharing. Is this necessary?
Lee: There are many bills being discussed. We’ll see what comes across my desk.
Followup: Has the Legislature been shut out?
Lee: We have been in contact with them all along.
Q: The finance commissioner asked for a 12 percent cut in departments; does it mean a cut in pay? Are you planning to do retesting at prisons?
Lee: Our agencies were asked to propose 12 percent cuts. It’s part of a responsible response to this economic challenge.
Piercey: On prisons, we have a low threshold for retesting the mass populations in prisons and nursing homes. We are doing that at Northwest. It would not surprise me if we did it at other sites. We test all inmates 2 weeks before release to protect the communities.
The Economic Recovery Group on Thursday issued new guidelines for noncontact sports, camps, and higher education under the Tennessee Pledge.
Under Executive Order No. 38 issued May 22, noncontact sports may resume under certain precautions, including efforts to maintain social distancing, wear masks when feasible and added sanitization measures. Sports that may return under the current guidelines include but are not limited to baseball, softball, volleyball, golf, disc golf, tennis and racket sports, cycling, track and field and other running events, and equestrian. Contact sports such as football, wrestling, and hockey are not permitted except for practicing in a manner that does not involve close physical contact with other persons.
Previously released summer camp guidance has been expanded to address the safe reopening of overnight camps. The Economic Recovery Group recommends additional protective measures for residential camps, including thorough pre-screening measures, limited mixing of campers and staff and modified sleeping arrangements, among a number of additional efforts to protect campers and staff.
Newly released Higher Ed guidelines recommend a number of safety precautions to protect staff and students. Recommendations to Tennessee colleges and universities include establishing policies for on-campus housing, how to isolate and care for sick students and staff, limiting number of attendees for in-person classes, and other measures. This guidance was created by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission in partnership with state colleges and universities and related associations and the Unified Command.
Full guidelines are at tnpledge.com.
In other news, the Unified Command Group finalized plans to establish an alternate care site at Metro Nashville General Hospital to increase hospital capacity in Middle Tennessee for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
The Nashville General alternate care site is a unique “hospital within a hospital model,” designed to be able to activate and de-activate quickly if needed and to provide a more efficient approach to meet potential needs of the city. It occupies two hospital floors, totaling 26,292 square-feet, and provides an additional 67, individual bed spaces to treat COVID-19 patients if the region begins to exceed their existing hospital capacity.