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July 23, 2020

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you all for joining for our weekly time together. Before we begin the COVID-19 portion of our report, I want to acknowledge the passing of Congressman John Lewis. Flags over the Capitol flew at a lowered staff this weekend to honor John Lewis to remember his great American legacy, but most importantly to remember the role that he played, the pivotal role that he played, in the civil rights movement in this country. Congressman Lewis certainly had deep roots in Nashville as a graduate of Fisk University, also a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He also was a very important leader in the sit-in movement in Nashville during the civil rights movement, and we honor the life of John Lewis in the State of Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee:

We'll move to the COVID-19 portion of our briefing. As this COVID-19 pandemic evolves, we are continuously evolving in our approach to it, and in our messaging as well. We want to make sure that we are addressing the health crisis, the economic crisis, that we are appropriately addressing things like getting back to school safely. To do so we want to make sure that during this evolution of the pandemic that we continue to remind Tennesseans, and to send messages that are important for all Tennesseans. We began early in this pandemic by reminding people to do your part and stay apart through a public service announcement campaign. We followed that up and added to that message when we recognized that Tennesseans needed to be tested in a greater degree.

Governor Bill Lee:

We added to that with, "When in doubt, get a test," and so today we launched a new public service announcement that focuses on one simple action that will help mitigate the spread, and that is wearing a mask. This new campaign will involve digital, television, and print. It is to remind Tennesseeans that we're fighters, and that we're in a fight with this COVID-19 pandemic. We're fighting to protect the health of our citizens. We're fighting to protect our economy. We're fighting to protect things that we enjoy in our way of life. Things like football on a Saturday, and you'll see that in our public service announcements that will be forthcoming. In fact the Vol Nation might recognize one of the folks in this campaign.

Governor Bill Lee:

A five-star recruit who made a wise choice to come to Tennessee, but he's also made a wise choice to engage with us. Trey Smith is a part of this campaign, and he'll be reminding us that he is fighting for football as many of the other folks in this campaign are fighting for their small businesses and for the health of their neighbors, and we implore Tennesseans to join in the fight. As the public service announcement says, "Face it. Masks fight the spread of COVID-19." We know that we can all do our individual part to help mitigate the spread of this virus.

Governor Bill Lee:

While this crisis has created a significant financial hardship all across the state, it's particularly been hard hitting on our nonprofit organizations, and so I want to talk a little bit about some announcements that we've made since our last briefing. We, through the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, which includes members of the legislature, the comptroller, the speaker, the lieutenant governor, that group has announced $150 million grant fund that's now available to Tennessee nonprofits through the Tennessee Community CARES Program. The department of human services will work with nonprofit partners to administer the grants, and we are prioritizing organizations that have been specifically engaged in the COVID-19 battle.

Governor Bill Lee:

These are organizations that fulfill critical needs like emergency food assistance, workforce training support for vulnerable populations, care for the homeless, and any number of ways that nonprofit organizations are engaged in the public health response. We encourage Tennessee nonprofit organizations to visit tn.gov for more information on just how to apply for these grants. Also, want to remind Tennessee businesses that we set aside $200 million in relief for businesses that were specifically impacted by stay-at-home orders. This $250 million is available for 33,000 Tennessee businesses. I bring that up again because the department of revenue has sent communication to every one of these businesses to let them know that they qualify for these grants, but we have not heard from many of those businesses.

Governor Bill Lee:

We want to remind them that they qualify, this money is available. We want to get it into the hands of those businesses that have been most affected by the pandemic, and so I encourage businesses to quickly go online to the TNTAP portal on department of revenue website to certify information about their business so we make sure that we get money into the hands of those businesses as soon as possible. In addition to nonprofit and business support, we also just this past week announced an additional $115 million in grants. Funds that will be distributed to local governments on top of the previously announced $200 million grant program that was available to those governments.

Governor Bill Lee:

At the state level we are reducing barriers. We're reducing financial and regulatory barriers that might inhibit local response. But we also know that on-the-ground response is needed by local leaders, and that is why we are pushing out this $115 million additional grant money to local governments. COVID-19's not an excuse for the larger state government to expand, but in fact, for local governments to use the funds wisely, and to develop their own responses to the COVID-19 in their individual communities. People trust their local leadership, and when local leadership is involved in utilizing funds in their communities, when local leadership is involved in actions like a mask requirement, there's greater adaptation by the local citizens because of the trust that they have.

Governor Bill Lee:

That's why we have used a targeted approach, and we believe that it gets greater buy-in from Tennessee citizens all across the state. So I want to commend local leaders for the way that they are developing strategies for using these funds, the way that they are developing targeted approaches for their communities. Particularly, I want to call out a few local leaders who have really engaged with us just in the past week or two, to make sure that their citizens are safe. Leaders like Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron, Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, Dyer County Mayor Chris Young. These are examples of mayors who have developed strategies for funding that is available to their communities, developed strategies for mask requirements, developed health approach strategies for COVID-19, and we do believe that this targeted local leadership strategy is the best way forward.

Governor Bill Lee:

A coordinated effort will exist the same way with local school districts as we prepare to get kids back into school. Commissioner Schwinn today testified again before Congress about the Tennessee approach to reopening schools. This is now the third time that our department has been asked to come to Washington to speak to Congress about the Tennessee approach. It is the way that we believe is the best way to reopen schools safely and to make sure that students will continue to learn across Tennessee. This week the CDC is expected to release new data and new guidelines on how schools can reopen safely, and so next Tuesday in our weekly press briefing we will be providing an outline of what parents and teachers can expect for the 2020 school year.

Governor Bill Lee:

Before we get into the reports from commissioners and Q&A, I want to remind people that early voting is in full swing. I plan to take advantage of that next week and early vote. I encourage Tennesseans not to wait until election day to get out there and exercise this right to vote. Early voting is open until Saturday, August the 1st.

Governor Bill Lee:

I want to ask Commissioner Barnes to come up and say a few words about our nonprofit grant program. Commissioner Barnes.

Commissioner Barnes:

Thank you, Governor. We are really excited about the opportunity to partner with additional nonprofits across the state of Tennessee. As many of you all know, we have been partnering with a lot of nonprofits across the state for many months, for many years. And this is an opportunity for us to go a little bit deeper into the communities to really help those agencies help the individuals that need it most. This $150 million is very important that it will be very targeted towards services that are directly related to COVID expenses.

Commissioner Barnes:

So these expenses can go back to the period of which the state of emergency was declared, which was March 1st and can go up until the period of November 15th. We will open those applications for individual nonprofits beginning August 1st. And so any agency that is interested in applying for those can certainly go out to our website and look for that information on our website, as well as the requirements that are required for any of those applications. So again, we are really excited about this opportunity to partner with additional nonprofits. We think that this is a great opportunity to help build a thriving Tennessee that we've been continuing to build. Thank you, Governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Doctor, would you come up and give a health report please?

Dr. Piercey:

Good afternoon. Thank you, Governor. I only have two brief topics to cover today. And then as the Governor mentioned, I'll be joining Commissioner Schwinn on Tuesday to talk about how important it is to get our kids back in school. Today, I've got a couple of topics. One is the hot topic of lab turnaround time. So you know that we've been struggling with this issue. This is not at all specific to Tennessee. This is something that we're dealing with nationally. And I'll take this moment to remind you that prior to about four months ago, nobody was doing this lab testing. So this is new for everybody. And with any kind of new process, it takes some time to scale up and quite frankly, labs in Tennessee have done an excellent job of doing so.

Dr. Piercey:

Now we're meeting the classic issue of supply versus demand and the demand is just outpacing what most of our labs can supply. Our labs are doing a fabulous job of turning over every stone and looking under every rock to see what they can do to improve their throughput. And so we really commend them and appreciate the efforts that they're making to do that because ultimately this is about patients getting their results quicker so we can start identifying them and mitigating the spread as quickly as possible.

Dr. Piercey:

But for some specifics on lab turnaround, in the last seven days, the statewide average has been 2.84 days with a range of one to eight days. That's a wide range. I understand. And on the 2.84 days turnaround, you may be thinking, "Oh, well it took me a lot longer than 2.8 days to get my tests back." Remember, you have to add transport time on the front end and reporting time on the backend. But 2.8 days is the average that it is in the lab. Again, that ranges from one to eight days, but that is our statewide average.

Dr. Piercey:

So over the last week or two, we've really had an all hands on deck approach of what we can do from a state perspective, not only to help our commercial and hospital lab partners, but also in our state public health lab. So on the commercial side, what we've been trying to do as much as we can, is assist with any supply chain issues that commercial labs are having. I want to be clear, we don't have a magic wand. We don't have really any inside track, but we do have resources and education on where they can look and can provide ideas to any commercial lab that might want help with that. Also, we've been providing some guidance to new labs that are trying to enter the market and start providing those services to increase the available number of labs that can run these samples.

Dr. Piercey:

On the state public health side, you know we do have our own state lab. We're not nearly the biggest lab in the state, but we do offer a substantive amount of tests each week. And that is something that we can control because they're in my division and we can have a little bit more direct input. There, we are hiring new staff. We have ordered new equipment. We are making several operational changes to move towards a 24 hour a day operation. Anybody with a business will tell you making that change is not an overnight thing, but we are putting the steps in place to have that done in the coming weeks.

Dr. Piercey:

Also, something that you may have heard of that we're doing in our state lab now is called pooling. And that is a technique that has been promoted nationally to run more than one sample in the same tube. Now I have to tell you, and I won't get into all the details, it's a little more complicated than that. And right now, when the prevalence is really high, sometimes it's not worth it to do the pooling. But in the instances where it does make sense, in low prevalence areas, we do now offer pooling in our state lab. And I know that some of our commercial partners are doing the same. So we'll continue to keep you updated on things that we're doing, but I wanted to reassure you that we do recognize it as a pervasive issue throughout the nation and something that we're addressing on a daily basis.

Dr. Piercey:

The other topic I wanted to cover today is the recent update to the White House Report. We talked about this, I guess, last week. And they have updated that since then. We got that, I believe it was on Monday night. So what we noticed is that there are more counties and metro areas in what they consider the red zone than there were last week. And the way they define red zone is over the last week, they've had a hundred or more cases per 100,000. So this is a per capita measurement, and there are now 10 metros and 24 counties on that red zone list. The metro areas, many are ones that you already know about: Nashville, Memphis Jackson. But we saw some new ones on the list this week and they're calling them metros. We don't consider them as that per se, but places like Cleveland and Morristown and Brownsville, smaller cities that really haven't been on the radar are starting to come up.

Dr. Piercey:

Likewise, there are 24 counties on there. Again, many that you'll recognize: Davidson and surrounding counties, Shelby County. But new to the list is Madison County and it's collar counties or surrounding counties, as well as those in the Southeastern part of the state, Hamilton, Bradley, et cetera. So those are the new ones on the red list. We also now have 10 metros and 40 counties on the yellow list from the White House, which indicates 10 to 100 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Dr. Piercey:

Well, what does all that mean? It means that we need to have a really clear focus, particularly in those red zone areas of what individuals can be doing to help with that. None of it's particularly new, but it's an incredibly pressing and important realization that these people in these counties need to take individual action. The actions that the White House recommends, and certainly we endorse as well for these red counties. And I would submit for all counties include wearing a mask at all times when in public, maintaining physical distancing, reducing public interactions, limiting social gatherings to 10 or less, using takeout or outdoor dining when possible, and above all taking every single measure to protect those around you that may be vulnerable, whether that's a high risk medical condition or the elderly. Again, those are the recommendations. None of them are new. We continue to emphasize the importance of that not only for those counties, but for all counties in Tennessee. Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Dr. Piercey. And we also have members of the Unified-Command Group here to answer any questions going forward. So with no further comments, we're happy to take questions.

Speaker 2:

You get to start from this side of the room, Governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

There you go, sir.

Speaker 2:

As you well know, this is campaign season. There's been a call from one of the candidates who's running for US Senate, that they should not have these public campaign events. What do you think about that?

Governor Bill Lee:

I think we've got great candidates running across the board here. Each has to choose their own strategy for reaching Tennesseans, and I'm certain that each one of them is doing it in their own safe way, I certainly hope so, and that would be all I could say about individual campaigns and their approach to reaching.

Speaker 2:

Well, but I know that you're not involved in the public events of the campaigns that are going on all over the place, and the ones I've been to, there's been very little masking, people wearing masks, or very little social distancing. So that's what's going on out there. What do you say to that?

Governor Bill Lee:

I say to every single Tennessean that we all have a personal responsibility to protect the neighbors that we're around, to protect ourselves, our families, to protect our economy, and the way we can do that is engage in the things that Dr. Piercey just talked about. That should be happening in every gathering and every place across the state, and I encourage every one of them to do that, and candidates to encourage their folks that are attending their events, to do that as well. [inaudible 00:01:47]

Speaker 3:

Hi, Governor. So last week, you delayed the execution of Harold Wayne Nichols, citing challenges due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I guess I was hoping maybe you could explain what were these challenges that you felt... Were you asked by the Department of Correction to push back this execution?

Governor Bill Lee:

During this pandemic, there've been limited access to prisons, there've been limited access for outsiders to come into prisons too, there've been limited access for faith leaders to engage with inmates, including those that are on death row. So there's been a great limit to the normal process of developing clemency requests, and because of the need to focus more specifically on what's happening with COVID IN our community, focusing the resources to get that done did not seem like the right thing to do at the time.

Speaker 3:

Did the Department of Correction offer any recommendations? Did they-

Governor Bill Lee:

They did not.

Speaker 3:

They did not. So I guess I have a question on if it's too challenging to do a execution in August due to COVID-19, how is it safe enough... You can please explain it, how is it safe enough to send students back to school? How do you wrap your mind around those two situations?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, that individual that was the inmate there, is allowed due process, in order to get to a place where they can present a clemency request, and they did not believe they had the appropriate environment to provide a clemency request, and it's important that we look at every single case completely, and their clemency requests completely, and because that couldn't be done, it didn't make sense to move forward there.

Governor Bill Lee:

Why should we open schools? Because our kids need to be in school, because kids not only academically are suffering, emotionally, mental health, we know that kids suffer in mental health capacity. Child abuse reporting is way down, and we don't believe it's because child abuse is down, it's because schools and teachers are a reporting mechanism for that. There are a number of working families who need for their children to be in school so they can continue to work. There's a lot of reasons why schools can be and should be opened, so long as we do that in a way that protects teachers and protects students at the same time, and we believe we can do it.

Speaker 4:

Hi, Governor, thanks for talking with us today.

Governor Bill Lee:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Speaker 4:

I have a few questions for you. I guess my first one is a yes or no question. Are you still convinced that schools should try to go back to in-person instruction in the next few weeks?

Governor Bill Lee:

I do think they should, yes.

Speaker 4:

And then I'm curious, because you always talk about First Lady Maria, who used to be a teacher. Have you talked about the reopening phase, and does she think that teachers should go back, as a teacher who was there in the front lines before?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, I'll let Maria make comments herself if she chooses to, which she probably won't, but I believe that the health of teachers is really important. We've got to make sure that the way we approach opening schools is safe for teachers, and we're working very hard to do that. It's also important that we make it safe for kids. As we said, CDC is about to release their new guidelines. We've been asked by Washington three times to present what our Tennessee plan is, because I think they understand that we have a good strategy moving forward. Again, Tuesday, we're going to outline what that strategy is, but we think it's important that our kids get back to school.

Speaker 4:

I guess my last question is still on education. We've heard from teachers who have decided to quit their jobs, because they'd rather do that then face the classroom, because they're scared for their health. So what would you say to those teachers who are about to face those students in two, three weeks and are worried about their own health, or the health of their families or their students?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. I think what I would say is, is that we're all very concerned about the health of Tennesseans. It's why we are doing the things that we're doing to try and protect health, whether it's a teacher, whether it's a student. We're trying to give choices as well. So parents should have the choice for the education of their children, and if that choice for them is in-person learning, then we need to provide that choice for them. This is very challenging. We know that. This pandemic is very challenging for all of us, and for all sectors of our population. So we're doing everything we can to make sure our teachers are safe.

Speaker 4:

I have a follow-up real quick. So is there a choice for teachers particularly? So we know we're giving parents a choice, but what about the teachers? Do you think they have a choice to either show up or just stay home and still have a job?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, what we want to do is give teachers a safe option. That's what we want to do. That's why we're providing the PPE, that's why we're providing local districts the decision making process for their teachers. We think that we want to give options to districts, and we want to make sure that we give the opportunity for teachers to go back to work safely.

Speaker 5:

Thank you, Governor. So keeping on the topic of schools, yesterday, you responded to an email by Williamson County Schools Superintendent Jason Golden. He had requested, and this isn't unique to Williamson County Schools, but he had requested waivers on TCAP tests, requirement of 180 days of classroom instruction, and the six and a half hours of instructional time each academic day. You, in a email yesterday, turned down these requests, stressing the importance of being able to measure students and how they're progressing to know where they need support, and what areas they need to focus on. So if I may, Governor, what is the importance of schools meeting these standards, and why do you feel that that outweighs custom tailored approaches like the ones Williamson County Schools requested of you?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. I think it's certainly important that we understand in Tennessee the impacts of COVID-19 on learning. In order for us to provide an environment for our kids all across the state, in every single district, we need to understand just where they are in the learning process. No one knows yet what the impact of closing schools from through the months of spring will have on children. The only way to know that impact and to know how to address that impact, is to make assessments, and we believe, at the Department of Education, that parents should know, that that teachers should know, and that we, as a community know where our children stand as a result of closing schools through this period of time. It's very important that teachers, that districts, that parents, that we understand just how strong this impact has been academically on children, and we believe the way to do that is to be sure that kids are assessed.

Speaker 5:

Lastly, would you say that's then probably off the table, as far as granting such waivers?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we certainly want to talk with districts and superintendents about any number of requests that they have, and we want to look at each one of them. What we're most interested in our kids, and in their success, and in their academic success, and in their health outcomes. And so, those are the policies that we put in place, but we have shown a very strong interest in partnering with school districts in allowing them to make decisions, in requesting information from us. That partnership is the key to Tennessee having a successful and safe reopening of schools. [inaudible 00:09:57]

Speaker 6:

Yes, Governor, it looks as if President Trump has sort of shifted his philosophy on wearing masks and has even said it's patriotic, and then you have the Texas Governor, the Ohio Governor doing mask mandates, and you've even started this new campaign, yet, I've got a feeling that there are still going to be a lot of people who aren't wearing masks when they should be. Why not go ahead and make this mandate? Because you've consistently said this is one of the best ways to stop the spread.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. Well, I think as I've said before, the most effective way to get people to wear a mask, is to have buy-in, and for mask wearing to be sustainable, you've got to have buy-in, and a mandate is simply a mandate. It doesn't equate to mask wearing. What I believe equates to mask wearing, is when folks trust other folks who are advocating for that, and there's a great deal of trust at the local leadership. So that targeted approach, we believe is the best way to actually get people to engage in mask wearing, more effectively than a statewide, one-size-fits-all mandate. A mandate for mandate's sake is not as effective an approach as what I believe we're taking, targeted local leadership.

Speaker 6:

Yeah. Also, the federal unemployment money is getting ready to run out unless they enact something quickly, which doesn't appear they are. Is the state going to be prepared to step in and do anything to supplement or increase that amount of money that people receive when the federal money dries up?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, we've made no plans to do that, but we're waiting to see what the federal government is going to do, as well. We're not waiting to see that in order to make a decision. We have no plans to supplement beyond the unemployment insurance strategy that we currently have and the unemployment benefit that the state already pays, that's what we anticipate doing going forward.

Speaker 6:

So once it's done, what you're getting at the state level is what you're going to get.

Governor Bill Lee:

That's correct.

Speaker 7:

Hi Governor, I have one question for Dr. Piercey, as well, after this. Kim’s question made me think about this. I believe in the past, if I remember correctly, you had talked about using your clemency powers differently than some of your predecessors might have. The legislature passed a law changing some of that drug free schools zone law that sent people to prison for 15 years on a first offense. Didn't matter, it was just what they had to do. Would you consider using, in the middle of your term, clemencies when a law changes like that in Tennessee? Perhaps the people that are sitting in there right now for 15 years, might've served 10 already on a first time drug offense, wouldn't face that same penalty now. Would you use clemency in that scenario?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. So, my strategy on clemency is to take those requests one case at a time. And we'll do that. We'll consider all of the circumstances around a clemency request and make those decisions. As you know, every single case is different. The circumstances around every case is different. So, I would consider every circumstance in each one of those cases in order to make those decisions.

Speaker 7:

I have a guess, but I've never been a governor. Why do governors wait until the end of their term to do that, so often?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, I've never been a governor before either.

Speaker 7:

But you're learning. I know those decisions are hard.

Governor Bill Lee:

I can only guess why other governors have made that decision. But I will... I'll plan to review those clemency requests. I'm not doing a lot of that right now that we have a full plate of other issues, but we'll review those cases as they come forward.

Speaker 7:

And Dr. Piercey, I wanted to ask you about Remdesivir and some of the ways that we are treating people in the ICU. Do you think it's fair to say that Remdesivir, other treatments, that we have learned in the last four months, are one of the reasons why we're sort of above water on hospital capacity compared to if we had had this level of cases four months ago, we might not have been?

Dr. Piercey:

Yes. So I think that's an important point that drives home what I've said before is we know so much more now than we did four months ago. Thank goodness. And hopefully we're going to know more four months from today than we do now. Remdesivir is one of those things that has come onto the scene over the last 90 days or so, and is now fairly widespread in its use. We know that in many instances, particularly in the sickest of the sick, it allows for those patients to have a substantially higher survival rate, lower mortality, than it would otherwise. And now we've been able to shore up the supply chain of Remdesivir.

Dr. Piercey:

It's not one of the things that is appropriate for every patient, but Remdesivir, convalescent plasma, and even just basic treatment protocols. You've heard me reference before about the speed, or slowness, quite frankly, of which we put patients on ventilators. That's made improvements in morbidity and mortality, as well. So those are tools that we have and then you know that we have therapeutics and vaccines in the pipeline. And so I suspect we'll be in a much different position in a few months than we are even today.

Speaker 7:

Is the federal government allotment that you guys got is that already two hospitals of Remdesivir? Didn't they give you 5,000 doses or something akin to that? Is that already gotten to the hospitals?

Dr. Piercey:

I think we ended up getting a total of around 8,400 doses, plus or minus, through federal allocation. But then in the month of July, we're actually transitioning from that federal allocation into more of a wholesaler distribution, like the normal commercial market would have. So hospitals are ramping up to be able to order that directly, which will take their reliance on us down. And they'll be able to get it themselves, which the patients will get it faster. So that's a really good improvement

Andy:

Governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yes, sir.

Andy:

You've got a pretty spirited Republican U.S. Senate primary going on right now. And two of your 2018 campaigns, Todd Bates, one of whom until recently served a leading role in your administration, are in the thick of it and support [inaudible]. Whom do you plan to vote for?

Governor Bill Lee:

We have two great folks on the Republican side, that's who you're referring to, I think. We have two great candidates there and Tennessee will be well served with either one of them.

Andy:

Are you taking any sides in this primary?

Governor Bill Lee:

I'm just glad that we've got the two candidates that we have, because it assures Tennesseans that we'll have a Senator that will represent our state well in Washington.

Andy:

So you would be happy with either one of them?

Governor Bill Lee:

I certainly would be.

Andy:

And not preferring one over the other?

Governor Bill Lee:

How do I say this in any other way, Andy? I think we have two great candidates and either one of them would be a great Senator.

Andy:

So George Flynn and-

Governor Bill Lee:

And I only say those two because you've referenced those spirited two candidates. So there are certainly a number of people running, but I know you were referencing those two.

Speaker 8:

Hey governor, good afternoon.

Governor Bill Lee:

Afternoon.

Speaker 8:

School boards across the state are making their final plans for reopening in the fall. As of today, the data from the health department shows more than 7,800 school aged children in Tennessee have been diagnosed with COVID. Some schools are citing that they cannot require masks in the fall, because local authority to obligate them in individual cities will have expired by then, will you extend that authority to local mayors? And how would you advise school districts wrestling with that decision of whether or not to require masks at school?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, so we're working with districts every day, as you know. We have two calls a week with school superintendents to discuss the very questions that you're talking about. We're in that process of finalizing those recommendations, many of which we've already given to districts. We do believe that districts should make decisions on their own, according to the conditions on the ground in their school districts. And that's why we're moving forward in that process. We expect more guidance from the federal government, just this week, on school reopening, and we will convey that guidance, as well, to those districts. And then each of them will make their decisions about any number of protocols that they'll have in place in their schools to keep their kids and teachers safe.

Speaker 8:

Will one of those recommendations be to require masks?

Governor Bill Lee:

We will leave that up to the individual districts. We certainly believe that the general population is adhering to and we're moving in the right direction across this state. Sixty five percent of our population now have mask requirements. A significant number of our businesses across the state are requiring masks in every county in the state. So we're moving in the right direction there, but individual districts will make those decisions.

Speaker 8:

All right, Governor. Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 9:

Hello, governor. I have a question for Dr. Piercey first. That's fine. Dr. Piercey, the rate of hospitalizations has been increasing and then that rate has even been escalating recently. Can you tell us where we are with places like Nashville and Memphis needing to activate their emergency overflow hospital wards? For example, where is Nashville with activating Nashville General's ward?

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. So let me give you an overall lay of the land of what we're looking at from a hospital capacity statewide. We have seen somewhat of a leveling of hospital patients in the Memphis and Nashville areas. I don't have the exact numbers committed to memory, but it's plus or minus 300 in each of those Metro areas. Where we're to see the real hospital growth is in those next tier of cities, Jackson, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Northeast. And specifically, I've been in conversations with the Northeast Tri-Cities and Jackson CEOs both this week, because the way they're positioned in their regions, they are the only tertiary care hospital there. And so they don't have that offload valve, if you will, or pop off valve, that the larger cities have with multiple hospitals.

Dr. Piercey:

So because Memphis and Nashville are relatively stable in their hospital numbers, we're not currently engaged in any discussions on opening the alternative care sites. What we are engaged in is making sure that they have the resources they need to surge in place. And many of them have, or all of them, have expressed the desire to do that first. And so we've been in very frequent, almost daily, contact with those CEOs saying, "How's your surge planning going? What are your staffing needs right now? Do you have any supply needs that we can help with?" And right now they've asked to do that in house and we're supporting them doing that.

Speaker 9:

Thank you. Governor, Dr. Piercey mentioned places like Jackson that are starting to see these surges. The Madison County, and then the Jackson mayors, have urged you to implement a statewide mass mandate with the argument that their hospital is overwhelmingly full of people from out of county, from counties where there isn't a mask mandate. We've heard other mayors talk about this patchwork issue that's in place. You've called it a targeted approach, but I think others would criticize it as a patchwork of mask ordinances. What do you make of that? And would you like to see every county mayor make the decision for themselves to implement a mask mandate? I know that you don't believe the state should do that, but do you hope to see all of these county mayors do that?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I certainly think if there is a county that have the numbers that warrant, then their leadership should strongly talk about whether or not that's right for their county. Our unified command group is traveling to multiple counties just to assess with local leaders. And we've been to I don't know how many different locations, eight or 10, and continuously going from place to place to meet and discuss and talk about the things that they can do. Not just mask wearing, but all of the other things that are important for a community to engage; communication, how they can engage their citizens, how we can get sustainable actions in place. And so certainly any county that has a rising caseload that appears to be a problem, that's a hotspot or that is rising into the red zone, they clearly ought to consider, and local leadership should consider, mask requirements in that county.

Speaker 9:

If a county is seeing these numbers increase, and you said that they should consider implementing a mandate, the alternative is that they don't. So what would be a reason that a county would have for not doing it? What is a valid reason for one of these counties to say, "We don't need to do this." Even if their numbers are increasing.

Governor Bill Lee:

Local leadership has to make decisions for their local citizens. Locally elected officials in a county that have citizens responsible to those locally elected officials, they're accountable for their decisions. And that's why it works when you allow local leadership to make decisions for their people. That's why statewide mandates are not as effective as local leadership targeted approach. So that would be what I would say to any local county mayor or local official.

Speaker 9:

To clarify, you don't see any economic or health downside to wearing a mask?

Governor Bill Lee:

I'm sorry?

Speaker 9:

To clarify, you don't see any economic downside to widespread mask wearing or health downside to wearing a mask?

Governor Bill Lee:

No, I think it's been shown that there's improvement with wearing masks. It also engages people, gives them confidence to go out and engage in businesses. So there's economic improvement associated with that. And then that is why you will hear me saying, over and over again, face it wearing a mask fights this.