Lee May 21

This is a summary of a COVID-19 press conference Gov. Bill Lee held Thursday. Among other news, Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord said the department will turn on its unemployment voicemail to help claimants who are making frequent calls. Also, only 45 percent of nursing homes have done testing or have scheduled tests.


Memorial Day is about remembering servicemembers who died. We lost four Tennesseans this year in military duty.

Harvard Global Health Institute said Tennessee was one of seven states to do enough testing to safely reopen. 2.5 percent of the state population has been tested.

We continue to meet the White House’s criteria for testing and its gateway to reopen.

I recently joined the YMCA in Memphis to give meals to needy families. They distribute 900 meals a day.

Human Services is expanding services for all essential workers – all qualify for child care payment assistance in many industries. This is good through mid-August.

The Class of 2020 celebrated differently than any in history. We are proud of them. The Department of Education has been sharing messages by celebrities to celebrate them. Share your message with the hashtag #Classof2020tn.

For the past two months, PBS has aired daily instructional content on television. It was created in Tennessee. It is available throughout the summer.

Reopening toolkits will be available in the next few days. Schools will reopen in the fall.

I signed an order today to create more consistency to reopen economy in safe way. It allows groups up to 50 people in social and recreational settings. Remind people …. we can never forget social distancing mitigates the spread of the virus. This allows us to be consistent with federal guidance. Larger attractions and bars may reopen if they follow Tennessee Pledge.

We have an historic unemployment rate at 14.7 percent.

Jeff McCord, Labor commissioner:

In the week through May 9, there were half a million claims that came in; of those, 50,000 claims are pending, meaning no determination was made for whatever reason. This week we made substantial progress. That went from 50,000 to 22,000.

Most are in April and March timeframe but some are March, but we know there are people behind those. We are …. we find hard claims and we have a people issue and an expertise issue, so we are increasing manpower to process. We are increasing our adjudicators from about 45 to 70. We are increasing our claim agents to solve difficult claims, from 118 to 145 agents, next week. It can take months to years to get this expertise.

We are finding that a concentrated number of phone numbers are making calls. Next week, we will turn on our voicemail so we can understand what those issues are and get to the customer service level we all want to be at.

We built and implemented three new systems under the CARES Act to distribute benefits.

Gen. Jeff Holmes, Military:

Over 85,000 tested by National Guard.

We helped housing authorities in the three largest cities. We finished first day in Chattanooga with local help.

Memorial Day: This is an opportunity to remember the men and women who gave their lives.

Dr. John Dunn, Health Department:

Over 12,000 have recovered.

Hospital assets are available. We saw a decrease in bed availability with opening of elective procedures.

We encourage people to get tested.

Unified Command will make testing availability a priority.

Vulnerable population: Will continue to be a priority. Long-term care testing ongoing.

45 percent of facilities have finished or scheduled testing.

Case counts continue to be flat in the fourth week of reopening.


Q: The Legislature returns next week. The Senate will handle only essential bills. The House will take up guns and abortion. What will you do about controversial legislation?

Lee: The Legislature has the authority to set the agenda. We all know that the greatest importance is the budget and the downturn.

Followup: What would you do about something nonessential? Veto?

Lee: If both chambers believe something is important, then I suspect I would too.

Followup: Dr. Dunn mentioned elective surgeries decreased the bed availability. Can you specify?

Dunn: We expected as sites began doing procedures…it’s not surprising. We are monitoring.

Q: Earlier this week you said nursing homes …testing would be done by end of month. We know a fraction of the 700 have been tested. Do you believe it will be done by end of the month?

Lee: 45 percent are done or scheduled. We believe more will. It’s changing rapidly. We hope the facilities will be done by the end of May. We are working with their trade association and the homes. Whether they all finish by the end of the month, we don’t know. Shortly thereafter

Followup: Do they face any fines?

Lee; We are working on rules to require them…for the future. We expect the homes will comply without that rule. But we will put that in place.

Q: Yesterday, some state representatives spoke to people still waiting for claims. The reps demanded more transparency on claims and processing. Your response?

Lee: McCord just reported on claims that were not completed. Some are difficult to process.

McCord: We are working hard. Last week 50,000 claims were pending. This week it’s 22,000. We’re training people to get to those hard claims. We will be as transparent as we need to be.

Q: The appeals court said the voucher program may not be implemented until the appeal is done. The hearing is Aug. 5. Will you pull the plug or will the program move forward?

Lee: We asked the attorney general to file a motion to ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to take this case and give a stay of the injunction pending the appeal. I hope low-income children who are zoned for low-performing schools will have access to a quality education.

Followup: Have you made any decisions to do another round of testing in prisons with large positives?

Lee: When we find additional cases or have symptomatic inmates, we will start testing over. If we have a reason to believe there is another outbreak, we will follow this process again.

Q: The executive order for groups and recreational uses…do you encourage out-of-state visitors for Memorial Day?

Lee: We opened those venues to allow people to enjoy them. We want our economy to open back up. We want Tennesseans to get back to work.

McCord: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are giving out masks to visitors.

Q: Two House bills are yours – abortion and guns. Don’t you have some degree of control over those bills?

Lee: The Legislature is a unique session because we are in a situation, we have not found ourselves in many, many years, potentially historically. We all know as public servants responsible for taxpayer money…the Legislature will determine what other issues rise to a level of importance. I am working with them daily to determine that agenda.

Followup: The entire budget is taken hostage when one side wants to further its agenda. What are you doing?

Lee: I trust them. They are public servants. I have a great deal of respect for our Legislature.

Q: What is your position on an outbreak this winter and what are you doing?

Lee: We … will prepare for whatever comes. We have been very diligent to follow data. There is a lot of unknown about the months ahead. We learned early on that models are not nearly as valuable as actual data. Projections about winter are premature. Last week we opened an alternative care facility.

Q: We heard reports about a cluster in Rhea County with migrant workers at a farm. Is the state involved?

Dunn: we are aware. We are working with the regional health department which is working with the owners.

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