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July 1, 2020

Governor Bill Lee:

Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us for our weekly briefing. Before we dive into the ongoing response to COVID-19, I want to share a couple of other updates. I'm going to start off with good news. Earlier today, we released information on the number of counties that are designated as distressed in our state. Those number of distressed counties have dropped from 15 to 11, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. So in spite of the current economic challenges that we face, this is good news for the longterm direction of Tennessee's economy. It's especially good news for rural Tennessee's economy. McNairy, Jackson, Fentress, and Morgan counties are no longer considered distressed. That's good news. As you've heard me say many times, what happens in rural Tennessee matters to every Tennessean and what's happened in the reduction of distress counties is good news, especially for rural Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee:

Additionally, I want to discuss an announcement that we made earlier today. The State Capitol Commission is the body responsible for historical displays in the Capitol. And today we announced that that commission will convene next Thursday, July 9th. It's my expectation that they will vote on whether to move the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust. I'll make a specific proposal for what they'll vote on next week, but I want to acknowledge the importance of the process that we have here in Tennessee. The commission process that is set up by the legislature protects the integrity of historical displays so that any changes are rooted in thoughtful civic discourse. This process is the opposite of the mob rule that unfortunately has been dominating the national headlines around historical displays. I have confidence that our process here in Tennessee with the Capitol Commission will be fair and representative of Tennesseans.

Governor Bill Lee:

As we move into the public health portion of the briefing, I need every Tennessean to pay special attention, especially as we enter the July 4th celebration weekend, COVID-19 has not taken a vacation. In fact, it's still here. Our caseload is climbing. It's very serious. It's exactly why I extended our state of emergency through the end of August. Continuing the state of emergency allows us to continue helpful deregulation and to continue services like telehealth to remain available as well. Our continued state of emergency does not stop efforts that are underway to get our kids back in school this fall, nor does it pause all the work that the districts are doing. And they were the process of completing to make this a reality. We're also working with the TSSAA to ensure that sports can safely resume with football and soccer seasons to move forward as planned. Keeping fans and spectators safe during COVID-19 will pose a challenge that will require parents and coaches and administrators to embrace accommodations that will enable seasons to continue and our student athletes to be safe in the process.

Governor Bill Lee:

We all want to return to normal, but until there's a vaccine, we have to keep our social behaviors in perspective. We're seeing an awful lot of Tennesseans take unnecessary risks, packing into a bar with friends or engaging in activities with large volumes of people. And with a lack of social distancing, I'm seeing our COVID-19 cases climb. Today we have more than 1,800 newly reported cases, and that's a record high. And the growth in cases isn't limited to our densely populated urban areas. I'm very concerned about the number of cases that we're seeing in counties outside of our urban areas like Sevier County and Macon County in Bradley County and Rutherford County, and many others. If you're a resident of one of these counties or any County in Tennessee, I encourage you to make time this week to get a test at your local health department and to stay home whenever possible.

Governor Bill Lee:

Don't put our state two steps backward by refusing to wear a mask or refusing to social distance or refusing to pay attention to something as simple as washing your hands. Happy hour with friends doesn't have to mean that you pack into a bar. You can support local establishments with, to go down out orders or to go drink orders. This recent executive order continues to allow that to happen.

Governor Bill Lee:

We've made great strides in Tennessee to get our economy back on track and to help thousands of unemployed Tennesseans get back to work. Those responsible behaviors that we've engaged in have also allowed families to begin safely seeing their loved ones in longterm care facilities. This all hands on deck approach that we've taken in Tennessee is also paving the way for us to get students back to school and to hopefully get us to a place where we can even do things like enjoy live sports, maybe at Neyland Stadium. But we were successful in those efforts this spring, and I'm asking every Tennessean, once again, to continue in their efforts to get us back on track, especially by wearing a mask or a face covering. I wear a mask every day as a simple courtesy, a way for me to serve my neighbor, to protect my family and my friends, and also to help our economy build greater consumer confidence, which is incredibly important for our economy to continue to stay on track.

Governor Bill Lee:

Mask mandates are something that's a hot topic, talked a lot about, especially as the clinical understanding of COVID-19 is showing that face coverings are one of the more effective tools in spreading the virus. Our densely populated urban areas continue to have the high case rates, but local governments and other areas are also asking for ways to create stronger expectations around wearing masks. And we're exploring the most effective way to make this possible, to check the authority of implementing mask requirements as needed in those communities with the highest level of cases. We'll have a resolution on that question hopefully very soon.

Governor Bill Lee:

As we continue our state of emergency and evaluate steps that need to be taken to responsibly address climbing caseload, I signed an executive order today, providing additional protection to healthcare workers. Executive Order 53, grants limited liability protection to healthcare providers, hospitals, nursing homes. Healthcare workers are on the front lines of the COVID-19 effort every single day, and this order provides limited liability with respect to the services they render that are not considered gross negligence or willful misconduct. The law only allows us to take this action for healthcare providers. So any other liability issues will have to be taken up by the general assembly. And we do understand there's an urgent need to address liability for businesses and nonprofits and schools. I plan to call a special session for this and we'll have more to say as legislative conversations around that special session continue. Before we move to questions, I'd like to ask Dr. Piercey to come up and give a health report please. Dr. Piercey.

Dr. Piercey:

Thank you, governor. Good afternoon. As the governor mentioned, we've seen a substantial increase in numbers of positive cases over the last few weeks. While testing rates have also seen improvements, the growth in new cases cannot be attributed to more testing alone. We have a growing problem in Tennessee, not only in our metro areas, but in our rural areas as well. In addition to continued increases in Memphis and Nashville, we're seeing a drastic rise in cases in the Knoxville metro area. Likewise, multiple rural counties are experiencing significantly higher case counts, including Sevier County, Rutherford County, Macon County and Bradley County.

Dr. Piercey:

As mentioned last week, now at least half of all cases are from an unknown source, what we call community transmission. This indicates that people are much more likely than they were in the past to acquire the infection when they're out and about trying to "get back to normal." Please listen carefully. This is not the time to get back to normal. We're all experiencing what we call quarantine fatigue, but I can guarantee you this virus is not getting tired. We cannot let our guards down. Instead, we must double down on our efforts to re-flatten the curve. If you don't have to go out, stay at home. If you can work or even socialize remotely, I strongly encourage you to do so. And when taking care of those essential services, please wear a face covering and keep your distance while you're out.

Dr. Piercey:

Speaking of face coverings, as the governor mentioned, let me remind you of the importance and effectiveness of wearing them when you're in public. Face coverings are one of the single most effective tools that we have to combat the spread of the virus. And when combined with distancing and frequent hand washing, we can halt or even reverse the trends of COVID-19 growth in Tennessee before our situation becomes even more dire.

Dr. Piercey:

Switching gears a bit to our preparedness efforts. As you know, a primary concern of ours during this entire response has been hospital capacity. As case counts continue to grow across Tennessee, there has also been a commensurate increase in number of hospitalization statewide. Just like case numbers in general, our metro area hospitals are continuing to see higher rates of patients admitted for COVID-19, especially in Memphis, Nashville, and now Knoxville. While hospital capacity in all of these metro areas continues to remain relatively stable, we're closely monitoring hospital resources, and we're in daily communication with our hospital partners. We have a robust plan for implementation of a stepwise approach, including activation of in-hospital search plans, as well as use of alternative care sites if the need becomes truly emergent.

Dr. Piercey:

Finally, as we approach the very happy time of the 4th of July holiday celebration, I want to leave you with a few tips to make sure that those celebrations and any travel that you may be planning to do, remain safe.

Dr. Piercey:

First, staying home is always the safest way to protect yourself and others from getting sick. If you're already sick or not feeling well, please strongly consider canceling your plans. For those who do plan to travel, remember these best practices. Before you leave, learn ahead of time about any requirements or restrictions in the areas that you plan to visit. Just like you would at home, use a face covering, keep your distance, and wash your hands often, and pay special attention to those measures if you plan to be in any closed common spaces like airplanes or taxis. Avoid large group gatherings and especially limit contact with older persons or people with medical conditions. And if you do plan to visit any older relatives or friends or those at high risk, please get tested before you go. When you return, have a very low threshold for getting tested if you were in one of those large groups, or if you came into contact with anyone who has subsequently tested positive, or if you feel sick during or after your travel.

Dr. Piercey:

There's very detailed guidance for travelers on the CDC website as well as additional information on the Tennessee Department of Health website, both regarding traveling and testing. I'll remind you of our website, it's tn.gov/health, and I encourage you to go there for additional information. Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Dr. Piercey. We've talked about a lot of challenging issues health-wise today, but I'd be remiss if I didn't end my comments and acknowledging the upcoming 4th of July holiday.

Governor Bill Lee:

Since our nation's founding, there have certainly been years where uncertainty overshadowed optimism. There's no doubt that 2020 has felt a lot like that this year, but America has always been in the midst of a crucible. Our trials reveal our perseverance and they unearth our character and they build our hope. And that's what I'll be celebrating this 4th of July, the hope that's core to this country and the hope that is yet to come. I invite you to join me in reflecting on that as we celebrate the greatest nation on the earth this weekend.

Governor Bill Lee:

We'll be happy to take your questions. And know that we have General Holmes, Patrick Sheehan is here from TEMA, other members of Unified Command, but happy to take your questions. Okay? Yep.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Governor Bill Lee:

On what?

Speaker 1:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Well we're working the TSSAA to develop those guidelines.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we're just, I can't answer that. We're just in the middle, just in the beginning, really of developing this specific guidelines for contact supports.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, that'll be up to the conversations that we're going to have in the next week or so. I expect there to be a special session, but we're in conversation now. So we don't have a date yet. Don't know when that will be exactly.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

I expect that we'll have a special session. Yeah.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. It's actually twofold. And you have to keep in mind that there are lots of dates in this timeline. So for example, someone gets sick and there might be a day or two, and then they go get tested. And then there is some amount of time for labs to process those tests. Admittedly, lab turnaround times are starting to get bogged down a little bit, just from the sheer volume. We're working every day to bring more labs online, as well as to enhance the capacity of labs that already exist throughout the state. And quite frankly, we have a very large number of high performing labs and that's allowed us to do lots more tests. So today, we did result almost 25,000 tests, which is by far the highest ever in a single day. Part of that is increased demand as, as you very well know, demand here in Nashville for getting testing has gone up.

Dr. Piercey:

And we've seen that around the state as well. That also represents somewhat of a clearing of the continued backlog into the system. You'll remember that we had the system unplanned shut down on Sunday. And that is because that system is not built to handle tens of thousands of tests per day. So some of those are from a few days ago and we're catching that backlog up. One more point to remember the patients that were tested, even if it was a delay in reporting into our system, they've already been notified. It wasn't a delay in them getting their results. It's just reporting to the state. So, lots of factors at play there, but we are seeing our testing grow day over day.

Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, so in Memphis and Nashville specifically, we have not yet had to activate in hospital search plans. Specifically in Memphis, it's something that our eyebrows are raised at. We're watching it. We're not there yet. It has leveled off a little bit in the last few days. And so we want to take care of those patients in the hospital. That's the best setting anytime we can. And so we still have lots of levers to pull, but we're watching it daily. Thanks.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. The decision about what to do with the bus will be the Capital Commission's decision. I will make comments to that commission next week. With regard to the bill, I haven't received that bill on my desk yet. So the decision for timing of whether or not to sign that is, I haven't made that decision. I haven't seen the bill yet.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we haven't made that decision yet because we haven't gotten the amendment to the bill yet.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

So there've been requests by localities about whether or not that the authority exists for them to have a mass mandate. And we're researching that right now. It's a legal question. An authority will determine that authority and have a resolution to that in the next few days.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Our approach is really targeted at where there are requests and challenges. That's the direction I'm headed.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah. You know, the tricky part here is we have to learn to live with this. The governor mentioned vaccine. Vaccine and herd immunity go hand in hand. And until we have that vaccine available or until about 70 plus percent of the population is infected, and trust me we don't ever want to get there, then we have to learn to live with this virus. And you've heard me as well as the governor explain multiple times, this tension that we have to balance between health and the economy. And you've also heard me say that individual economic prosperity is an integral part of health.

Dr. Piercey:

So we have to find a way to balance the two. And when I said, we shouldn't go back to normal, you've seen pictures of people crowded into spaces, whether it be graduations or bars or things. And it looks exactly like it would have looked a year ago. That's what we can't go back to normal. We have to make these modifications. And some of them are inconvenient. Nobody likes wearing a mask, particularly in the summertime. But as the governor mentioned, it's a way we can show that we care about our neighbors and doing it for the good of the public to make sure that virus rates stay low and we can keep our economy open.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, that's the $64,000 question. As the governor mentioned, we don't think that there's a one size fits all, but we do want to be able to allow for those restrictions or additional enhancements to the policies in certain areas that are interested in doing that. I know you would agree that not every County is in the same position, both economically, societaly and not with the virus either. And so we want to be able to allow those flexibilities whenever they are interested in doing those. Thank you.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Governor Bill Lee:

I have not considered travel restrictions.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, you asked about guidance. What we're doing is developing a strategy for areas that have a particular challenge, where we have a County that has a significantly increasing cases. We were in a meeting this afternoon, our health department and members of Unified Command meeting with local officials of the County to talk about testing strategy, contact tracing strategies in that County, communication, how we do public service announcements around face coverings. So it's to develop a strategy for those places that have a unique challenge going on. That's our hotspot strategy.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Dr. Piercey:

Are you speaking about hospital capacity?

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah. You're very astute in picking up I'm serious about what I said today. Because the key message here is not chasing after hotspots. We find hotspots and there is, as you mentioned, a robust plan to go and increase testing, improve messaging, engage community leaders, locate vulnerable populations when we have that hotspot. But that's too late. When we get to that, it's too late. We have to take a step back and focus on primary prevention and primary prevention keeps people from getting it in the first place. So I know people get tired of hearing us say it. Wear the face covering, wash your hands, keep your distance. We know, and I'm sure you've seen it come out recently, almost all of the spread is person to person. Common surfaces, yeah, they can still live there, but the main way people get it is by close contact with others. And so if we take those primary prevention messages of keeping your face covered and keeping your distance from others, that's how we not only target the areas, but prevent them in the first place.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible]

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. So contact tracing, as soon as the case number grows the need for contact tracers grow. And we've seen quite a bit of rise in cases. We're going to need more contact tracers. We have now brought on, in addition to what we already have, we've brought on two contract agencies and have finished training. The first group of those are in process of training the second group. I speak with my counterparts across the South, as well as the nation, and everybody is in this same boat. We're hiring contact tracers as fast as we can and just trying to keep up with the load as best we can. At some point, it's going to become very difficult because we added 1,800 new cases today. That's 1,800 new case investigations that we need to be doing tomorrow.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. So that's actually what I said was that my approach is more targeted to... And this comes as local counties request clarity on the authority that they have to put in place stricter mask standards. So that is actually the direction we're looking at.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

We're not considering that right now.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Great number of requests from municipalities and local governments who some of them have difficult, possibility, almost a virtual impossibility, given the locations of their meeting, places, whatnot, to have local meetings. So we want them to continue to meet. Many of them are elderly, don't want to be put in that position. It requires them to not have a choice. You have a choice of going to get a hamburger. If you're a County commissioner, you don't have a choice of whether or not to go to a County commission meeting. And so we are trying to provide for government meetings to continue, but to provide for safety for those meetings that have to be held.

Speaker 2:

[inaudible] How much of that money has been used or [inaudible] the virus itself and how much more is going to go towards combating the virus?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, as you've seen there's dozens of categories for spending. I can't recall from memory the numbers associated with direct COVID spending. For example, there's spending related to testing and facilities, and there are a number of categories. And again, we don't know what the future holds for this virus over the next six months, but we're preparing for that. And we're allocating spending reserves for what we believe will happen for spending. It's public. It was detailed. You can see all of those numbers there available. And I would encourage you to look at that document. It details specifically where all the money's being spent.

Speaker 2:

Chris, last question. Two, if I may. With all these rising numbers and what we heard today about [inaudible] people choosing not to wear masks, how worried should Tennesseans be?

Governor Bill Lee:

How worried should Tennesseans be? They should be very concerned. The entire country should be concerned and it is concerned. But we have a significant public health crisis. It is present. There are people dying every day in our state. We lose Tennesseans every day to COVID-19. It's transmitted by person to person contact. Anyone can get it. We should be very concerned. When we have people dying in this state as a result of this virus, we should be worried about it. We should be concerned about it. We should be taking steps. We should take personal responsibility for this. We've watched caseload's climb. What I think we need to remember is that we have mitigated this before with behavior. We can mitigate again with behavior. As Dr. Piercey said, the virus is with us and we have to learn to live with it and to live our lives, but understanding that it's there.

Governor Bill Lee:

But I don't think we should be afraid of it. I think we should just take the appropriate steps. If you're wearing a face covering and you're washing your hands and you're staying socially distance and you're doing the things to keep yourself safe, then you shouldn't be worried about your own personal or the people around you as a result of your activity. That's what I would say to folks.

Speaker 2:

I think you said you'll be addressing the capitol commission next week. Can you tell us what you'll say in [inaudible]?

Governor Bill Lee:

I haven't prepared those yet. So I can't. I'll have more to say about that next week.

Speaker 2:

Do you think you'd say you would be taking a position on what they should do?

Governor Bill Lee:

I didn't say that, but I'll just be addressing the commission. I'll have more say about it next week.

Speaker 2:

Thank you, Governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you. I appreciate it. We are in a critical time. We're in a remarkable time. We're in a time for great celebration even this weekend in the midst of the challenges we have, because we have a great deal of hope. And I have a great deal of hope that Tennessee can rise up and meet the challenges that we face and that we will be better off as a result of it when we're done, but it'll then take the continued engagement. And as I've said for months now, we need every Tennessean and to take personal responsibility. Protect themselves, protect their neighbors, protect their families, to serve one another, and I encourage all to do that. Even as we enter into this holiday season, where we celebrate the greatest nation on earth. Thank you for being here.