This is a summary of Gov. Bill Lee’s Aug. 4 COVID-19 press conference.
He met with teachers Monday in Obion County who were preparing for school. The state handed out kits to teachers for PPE and masks; 80,000 such kits are going out statewide. Our state was first to do this. It takes 50 truckloads just for disinfectant wipes. We are grateful to TEMA and The National Guard, as well as private partners like FedEx. Pfizer Corp. gave a $250,000 grant to provide touchless thermometers.
The school year brings opportunities and challenges. My wife Maria has the Tennessee Serves initiative, helping people donate school supplies. The cost of going back to school is significant to people struggling. I encourage you to visit tn.gov and see how they can participate.
Thursday’s press briefing will be about school reopenings.
Special session of Legislature coming Monday: Extending liability protections to businesses, schools, nonprofits, healthcare workers and more to protect those from frivolous lawsuits associated with COVID-19. They have enough uncertainty. We will work on telehealth legislation too, as well as laws on Capitol grounds for vandalism.
The stimulus financial accountability group is working to make sure we can spend the stimulus funds before the end of the year so we don’t lose them. $150 million is coming this month for nonprofits that serve people in the pandemic. There are other grants available to groups.
I want to thank the National Guard. I’m grateful for the Trump administration and funding the Guard in handling COVID-19 relief.
We are all called to have an individual responsibility in this pandemic. Each of us must take up habits like social distancing and wearing a mask.
Jeff McCord, Labor & Workforce Development
The $600 federal benefit ended July 25. If an eligible claim was filed before then, they qualify until July 25. We are talking with the federal government to see if there will be another benefit, and we think there will be something. If something is passed, we will need guidance.
Dr. John Dunn, Health Department
We are encouraged by a modest decline in cases today. We must continue to take actions to prevent the spread: social distancing, wash hands and wear face covering.
COVID testing remains important. We are working with labs to increase the speed of testing.
People with symptoms should talk to their medical provider and get tested. Early medical assessment and appropriate healthcare can lead to a better outcome and mitigate the spread.
Some regions have flattened, but others are rising.
We passed 1,000 deaths. 80 percent were older than 60 years. Today, 25 new deaths reported. This is a reminder to help limit the spread.
Q: A hospital reopened in Celina. It has tried to get state and federal funding to help but has not gotten anything. I hard you must show your expenses from last year and they didn’t have that. Can you tell the Revenue Department to allow exceptions?
Lee: We need to look at it. Rural hospitals are important in the pandemic. I’ll speak with the commissioner.
Q: Help me understand not reporting on a school-level basis and do we need a framework so schools will get the same information?
Lee: We agree we need to make sure reporting is accurate. We are working on a plan to report school cases but need to protect identities. Transparency is important.
Q: The Tennessee Education Association said not to reopen.
Lee: Teachers have an important role to play in reopening schools. It’s important that parents have a choice on how their kids receive education. It’s important to get kids back in schools: nutrition, mental health services, reporting child abuse, disabled kids’ services. It’s important to provide a safe environment, so that’s why we are distributing health safety packets.
Followup: Since schools will not track cases, how can you reassure parents?
Lee: We are developing a plan to report cases in schools.
Lee: Soon, within a week or so.
Q: There has been a proposal for legislators to wear masks at the special session. Do you think they should be required?
Lee: I think every Tennessean should wear a mask. The Legislature will determine their own rules.
Q: There have been nine cases in schools that reopened. How can you reassure parents?
Lee: We know we will have cases. We developed a clear protocol we gave districts, based on spread in a county, depending on the level of virus in the community on when to close a classroom, cordon off a hallway or a wing or a school. Districts have that information. Combined with protection for teachers are examples of how we believe we gave guidance for a safe reopening.
Q: You ruled out statewide mask orders, closing bars but you had said you would not take things off the table. What else can you do?
Lee: I think everything is on the table not knowing what the future holds. Knowing what the virus is like now, we are taking action. I have changed positions at times based on the spread. We will follow the information.
Followup: Did you consider any additional legislation like waiving the no excuse voting in November or increasing the unemployment benefit?
Lee: We considered things, but the special session is …we needed to keep focused on bills that had been underway when the regular session ended.
Q: One topic in the special session deals with defacing property and the Capitol grounds. Why not something on police brutality?
Lee: We had a press briefing here where we brought together members of law enforcement to begin the process of developing a strategy to reduce brutality and make reforms. That work is ongoing. There are opportunities for legislation for the regular session starting in January.
Followup: IF you took steps with the task force, why not do something with the Legislature to show you’re serious?
Lee: we are serious. That’s why we’re working on it.
Q: What changed in terms of saying schools will track cases? A few hours ago, the Department of Education defended its decision not to report cases.
Lee: We’ve had a lot of discussion. We must protect privacy but we also must be transparent. That policy change will be implemented in about a week and has not been communicated to all the departments yet. We will give you a plan within a week of what information we will provide with the intent of being more transparent.
Followup: The special session took a lot of work to prepare…will the immunity bill be retroactive?
Lee: There is retroactivity. The draft of the bill is almost complete.
Followup: It feels like this was done behind the scenes.
Lee: We will make a proposal to the Legislature and it will be hashed out.
Q on transparency: This is not the first time you refused to disclose information and then reversed. Does your administration have a transparency issue? Is that an effective way during a pandemic?
Lee: None of us have faced a pandemic before and what do we report? This is also a health crisis and privacy around personal information is incredibly important and it’s a balance to have transparency.
Followup on COVID liability: Several lawmakers who said on the House floor that such measure is illegal and unconstitutional. Why is it legal?
Lee: We believe the way we built this bill falls within the Constitution.
Q: You were emphatic last week that schools need to reopen. CDC and Dr. Birx say you need the virus under control. DO you have any expert saying to reopen?
Lee: Child abuse cases have dropped 25 percent. We expect abuse has not dropped by 25 percent. Teachers are the primary reporter. There are mental health services for kids who have needs, and those are mainly through the school. Those are two examples of documented reasons why kids fare well in a classroom setting. Parents will have a choice in every district, if a parent does not feel safe, they will have an option for online learning; we made that available for every district.
Followup: But all experts on the federal level say get the pandemic under control. D you have a single expert saying they are wrong?
Lee: We have evidence…
We work every day to mitigate the spread. We have sufficient healthcare capacity. We have one of the lower deaths per capita.
But to be clear, you don’t have an expert saying now is the time to reopen?
Lee: 25 percent of child abuse cases in our state is a very clear reason we should protect children and other reasons.
Q on special session: If schools reopen in defiance of federal guidelines, why should they get liability protection?
Lee: We gave districts…we believe because it’s best for kids to be in classrooms, we need to provide them an environment that protects them from frivolous lawsuits.
Followup: Testing capacity has fallen dramatically this week. If you can’t test, can you safely reopen schools?
Lee: Turnaround time is greatest challenge.
Dr. Dunn: In May, we hoped to get up to 5,000 to 6,000 tests per day. This past week, we have averaged 25,000 to 30,000 tests per day. We have over 10,000 tests reported today. We continue to monitor commercial labs. We continue to make testing widely available. We think we’re in good shape with testing assets.
Q: With hundreds of thousands losing the $600 payment, are there discussions what can be done with Washington dithering around?
Lee: It is a real issue. We hope the federal government makes a plan. At the state level, we are not discussing a bridge. We don’t have the resources.
Followup: Protecting First Amendment with protecting public property…
Lee: We had a lot of protests in Nashville that were peaceful. We respect and appreciate the protection of the First Amendment. We want to make sure that ability to provide that protection for protesters is done so peacefully and without property damage.