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May 5, 2020

Thank you for joining me for our COVID-19 briefing. As many in our state begin the process of getting back to work, I will again return to spending more time outside the Capitol. 

I will be visiting small businesses, non-profits, and health care providers across the state in the coming weeks to check in with Tennesseans. While our scheduled briefings will no longer be every day, I look forward to again being on the ground with Tennesseans in communities across the state. 

This Friday,  Maria and I will start our day by serving at Second Harvest Food Bank to pack food packages for Tennesseans in need. The natural disasters our state has faced and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis have created tremendous hardship for many. I encourage every Tennessean to consider volunteering with or donating to organizations like Second Harvest as our food banks are serving a critical need. 

While this pandemic has created turmoil, it has also shown the many ways in which Tennesseans step up to serve each other. Today I’d like to recognize our Tennessee banks for assisting more than 75,000 small businesses in getting more than $8.95 billion in Paycheck Protection Program Loans. Our financial institutions continue to be quality partners in efforts to provide relief and we thank them for their work. 

Over the last three weekends, we have tested more than 23,000 Tennesseans through drive-through testing centers. Free COVID-19 testing is available 5 days a week at our rural county health departments and I remind Tennesseans to take advantage of this service. Remember, when in doubt, get a test. 

Today, we have:

  • 13, 624 cases
  • 226 deaths
  • 6, 356 recovered 

Today I will preview forthcoming guidance from our Economic Recovery Group, our efforts to secure personal protective equipment for Tennesseans and thermometers for businesses, the return of dental procedures and newly-awarded rural hospital grants. 

Our Economic Recovery Group will be issuing guidance tomorrow for small group recreation outfits like bowling alleys and putt putt golf businesses. Small group recreation businesses will be allowed to re-open on Friday, May 8. Tomorrow, we will also be issuing guidance for several industries that have remained open during this pandemic but will need tools to operate more safely. This includes general guidance for offices, manufacturing and construction. 

As businesses prepare to implement guidelines for safer operation, many business owners have indicated a need for thermometers to conduct temperature scans that are recommended in the guidance. 

Our Economic Recovery Group has secured special pricing on Touchless Thermometers for our restaurant, retail and close contact business owners.

Starting today on TNPledge.com, Tennessee-based business owners will have the ability to order through Friday at 4 p.m. central time or until supplies run out. Quantities are limited to 10 per business.

As we also encourage the use of cloth masks, our Unified-Command Group forged a partnership with Renfro Corporation, a global manufacturer with operations in Cleveland Tennessee. We have secured more than 5 million cloth masks to begin distributing to Tennesseans. 

Our first distribution of cloth masks has gone to all 95 health departments in Tennessee. The reusable, washable masks are free of charge for anyone who needs one. 

The Unified-Command Group has also secured a partnership with Batelle, a global research and development company, to sterilize N-95 respirators for health care workers. 

With the nationwide shortage of N-95 respirators, Batelle has created a technology to safely sterilize these critical pieces of equipment for our health care workers. Batelle will place this system in Jackson. With this technology, we can sterilize up to 80,000 N-95 respirators per day. 

Personal protective equipment is key to getting other aspects of elective medical and dental care back open. 

In working with the Tennessee Board of Dentistry, dentists will be allowed to resume practice tomorrow. The Board of Dentistry has opted to use the American Dental Association guidelines and we support them in this process. 

Rural Hospital Grants

COVID-19 has placed a considerable strain on our small and rural hospitals. In April, we announced $10 million in grants to keep small and rural hospitals open and offering services as we bridge the gap for federal funding. The following hospitals have been added to the list to receive funding:

  • Macon County Hospital
  • Rhea County Hospital
  • Maury Regional Hospital
  • Henry County Medical Center
  • Houston County Community Hospital 

We continue to support our rural and small providers as they care for Tennesseans in every corner of the state. 

Governor Bill Lee:

I'll be happy to answer questions, to open up the lines for any questions. I have members of the Unified Command Group here. Of course, Dr. Piercey here with Department of Health and we're available for your questions.

Speaker 2:

Thank you governor. First, we'll go to Kim Crucey with the AP. Kim, your line is open.

Kim Crucey:

Hi governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Hi Kim.

Kim Crucey:

My question isn't necessarily COVID-19 related, but last night a Nashville judge decided that the ESA law was unconstitutionally unenforceable. I was hoping to get some insight from your administration on what that has meant for the application process to the ESA program.

Governor Bill Lee:

Well we are first and foremost committed to a quality education for every single Tennessean. And that's what the education savings program is about, is to provide for low-income students in districts with lowest-performing schools to have access to the same quality education that other Tennessee students have access to. And that's what this plan is about. We disagree with that court ruling and we will appeal that of course and hope to move forward with the Education Savings Account program.

Kim Crucey:

Right. But at this point, are you still encouraging parents to apply to the program?

Governor Bill Lee:

We are. We're still encouraging parents to apply to the program because we believe that it will continue to move forward. So yes we are.

Kim Crucey:

Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Natalie Allison with The Tennessean. Natalie, your line is open.

Natalie Allison:

Hello governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Hey Natalie.

Natalie Allison:

Given the drastic cuts that have already been made and will have to be made again to the budget, is it right to keep that $38 million in the budget for a program that has now been declared unconstitutional and that of course has the potential for a prolonged court battle? So is it warranted to begin the ESA program this year under these circumstances?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I think anything that is going to allow children in this state to have a high-quality education is worth fighting for. It's worth pursuing. I believe very strongly in those children. I believe very strongly in the principle that they deserve, regardless of what zip code they live in or what their economic status is, that they deserve to have a high-quality education as well. So we'll continue to pursue that and believe that now more than ever a high-quality education starting this next year is important for Tennessee students. They will have had a very challenging educational end of the year this year and if ever we need to be investing in education for kids, now's the time.

Natalie Allison:

Some of the other major education initiatives you and your administration had introduced this year, the Mental Health Trust Fund, literacy programs, those are likely to be cut. The mental health program I know has been cut from the budget. I think the teacher's literacy initiative is uncertain due to the required cuts. Why is the ESA program more important than some of these other education programs that would affect students all across the state?

Governor Bill Lee:

I think we'll be looking at educational initiatives and funding for education and continued strong funding for education in the future. The legislature of course will determine what the agenda is going to be. You mentioned literacy, other educational initiatives, those will be determined by the legislature. And spending for education will be important as we consider just how it is that we manage this budget going forward. So I think there are a number of educational initiatives that we will continue to consider because as I said before, now more than ever we need to be investing in our children.

Natalie Allison:

[inaudible].

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Phil Williams with News Channel 5. Phil, your line is open.

Phil Williams:

Good afternoon, governor. My question I think is for Commissioner Piercey. Commissioner last week, you expressed surprise that there were so many inmates who were asymptomatic. Calling it a quote, "Real head-scratcher." Yet in late March you identified longterm care facilities that there's a real concern with asymptomatic residents. Why did they say that you were so surprised about asymptomatic spread among inmates?

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, that's actually a really good question. Elderly folks oftentimes have weaker immune systems and it takes longer sometimes for them to show signs of illness, particularly this one. And so it's fairly well documented, not only for this infectious disease but others that they can have a longer presymptomatic or asymptomatic period. Now I will clarify that elderly people are more likely to become symptomatic, it just takes longer. And that's a bit different than being asymptomatic. The thing that's still a head-scratcher is, why ostensibly younger and healthier inmate populations have such an incredibly high asymptomatic rate. And we're starting to see this all over the nation. Starting to see it not only in inmate populations but also in other very condensed, contained populations. Even employer situations where people are very close to one another. So it's good that they're asymptomatic, it's just difficult to explain physiologically why younger, healthier people would have that type of asymptomatic behavior.

Phil Williams:

Do you accept any responsibility for the fact that this situation got so out of control inside the prison system?

Dr. Piercey:

Oh, I'm not sure anybody did anything wrong there. In fact, I think we are on the forefront of testing proactively. You know, when I hear this scenario played out all over the nation, I think you've probably heard me say, I talked to my counterparts at least in the South every Monday morning. And without fail, every single one of my counterparts has had this on some magnitude in their state. And so, the good news is these folks are well and we're identifying them early. I think the thing that makes us a little bit further ahead in Tennessee than in many other states is that we're actually going out and proactively looking for these. Most states are testing just the symptomatic folks and their contacts. But when we did that, we started to see this growing number. So I'm proud that we've taken the proactive step of testing the entire inmate population. Because that's not only going to help us treat the positive ones sooner if they become ill, it's going to help us protect the negative ones from becoming sick.

Phil Williams:

And I have a very quick question on what [inaudible 00:07:18]. On April 22nd you told the public that any longterm care facility with two or more COVID cases must report those. But I checked your directive and even one confirmed COVID case must be reported. Given how contagious this virus is, why can you not start listing the names of facilities that have even one case?

Dr. Piercey:

One case is not a cluster so we're listing cluster cases and so two is by definition a cluster and so that's how we report that. Quite frankly, it's going to be pretty unusual just to have one. Typically as as we've just gotten through saying, in that congregate-care type setting the spread is usually pretty rapid and so we're not listing the ones but there's probably not going to be that many of those, unfortunately.

Phil Williams:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to CB Cotton with WKRN. CB, your line is open.

CB Cotton:

Hi, good afternoon governor.

Governor Bill Lee:

Hi CB.

CB Cotton:

Given the deaths over at Trousdale Turner, I wanted to ask if your office is giving any additional consideration to accelerated releases for inmates that have been paroled? Any type of release... early releases to just decrease our states prison population?

Governor Bill Lee:

So this pandemic and our testing of and subsequent treatment of inmates does not include any change to release for any of the inmates or shortening of any of those sentences.

CB Cotton:

Okay. A follow up question. I know that there have been attorneys in the state that I've been communicating with board of parole about some early releases. Are you in contact with the board of parole about those requests that they're getting?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, the board of parole certainly is connected to our office. It's a part of state government, but I haven't been requested by the board of parole to authorize any earlier releases or any shortening of sentences.

CB Cotton:

Maybe this is a good follow up for Dr. Piercey, so you know, some people have said that social distancing is tough given the prison environment. Dr. Piercey, in addition with the testing, what would you say are some other means that can help mitigate the viruses spread within the prison population?

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, you're exactly right. It is incredibly difficult to have social distancing when you're in any kind of congregate care setting, whether that be a prison or a group home or a nursing home. But there are a lot of steps that our prisons have taken and other facilities have taken to mitigate the spread. Mask availability, increase soap and hand-washing availability, decreasing the number of times that inmates in this situation congregate with one another in recreational or group food settings. Some of that can be avoided. Some of it can't. The most important infection control principle, whether it's in this setting or in others, is to actually cohort the well patients away from the sick patients. That way they can interact with one another, and although it seems a little odd, it's okay for the sequence two or the positive ones to interact with one another because they're all already positive. So different changes in meals and schedules, and then another big one is visitor policies and screenings when they come in. So there's a really long list of mitigation efforts that these facilities can make to really reduce the spread.

CB Cotton:

Okay. Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Shannen Sharpe with WTVC. Shannon, your line is open.

Shannen Sharpe:

This question might be more for Dr. Piercey. I know last week we had talked about reporting the numbers of nursing home cases and updating that every day. Is that something that is going to happen this week, updating those numbers every day?

Dr. Piercey:

Yes. So after your question last week I went back and talked to my team and the numbers just don't change much day to day and so we're going to keep that on a weekly reporting basis because quite frankly, we're all stretched pretty thin right now, and the same folks that are doing the counting and reporting are the same ones that are actually in the facilities doing the hard work and the heavy lifting. I think you would agree, we would all rather them be on site and doing the actual work then updating numbers every day. So if the numbers changed substantially every day, I think it would add value but they don't. So we're going to report them once a week.

Shannen Sharpe:

And is there an update on the testing of long term care facilities? I know there were supposed to start some last week. Where does that stand now?

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, that's what I mentioned earlier in my comments that that is starting and longterm care facilities by and large have been very responsive to the call that we put out last week. They got guidance on Friday in the form of a letter, and then we posted a frequently asked question document on our website on the congregate care webpage and it goes through lots of different questions that facility's had as well as contact information. We have a point person that can facilitate that. Most facilities are ready and willing and doing it on their own. Some of them are going to need some help from the department and we stand ready to help them with that.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Andy Sher with the Times Free Press. Andy, your line is open.

Andy Sher:

All right. Hey Doug. Well, I've got two questions. One relates to contact tracing. How many contact tracers does the state have at this point and is that enough?

Dr. Piercey:

Yeah, that's something that we ask ourselves every day and we started out with about plus or minus 70 and that might surprise you. You might not think that we would have contact tracers outside of this, but you know, we do tracing on a lot of different infectious diseases all year round. That's kind of a full time public health job. So we had plus or minus 70 to begin with. Then we took some other staff within the department that sort of multipurpose or multidisciplinary staff, brought them on board and then about a week, perhaps almost two weeks ago now, we brought on an additional 230 state employees that were outside of the department of health that volunteered to be temporarily reassigned. So now we're well above 300 contact tracers and looking to bring on another cohort, probably sometime in June. As our case numbers grow, our need for contact tracers will grow and so we're pursuing a couple of different avenues to meet that next cohort.

Andy Sher:

How many ideally do you need to do the job?

Dr. Piercey:

That's based on how many cases we have and so I'll remind you that the department of health is in 89 rural counties and I haven't looked at the breakdown in the last day or two, but the last time I looked, the 89 rural counties only accounted for about half of the cases. So that's the number we're targeting. The metro areas have their own contact tracers. We're in frequent contact with them to make sure that they have their needs met and working with them to potentially supplement their needs because we know that most of the cases are in the metro areas just because that's where the population has, and so I'm making sure they have enough contact tracers for the metros as well as enough for us in the rural areas.

Andy Sher:

Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Excellent. Going to Sam Stockard with the Daily Memphian. Sam, your line is open.

Sam Stockard:

Yes. Governor, I know Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has said the state should give local governments more control during the pandemic in regard to paid sick leave for employees. The reopening process for businesses since I guess he feels like he sort of stepped on the toes of Chattanooga leaders and also the ability to regulate nursing homes more closely since they fall under state authority. Why is the state holding up local governments in these areas instead of relinquishing a little more control that he's talking about,

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, so we are working together with local governments. That's how we do it. We have a daily call. Our office has a daily call with the city mayors of those major metropolitan areas as well as the County mayors to talk about the things that we're doing, the things that they're doing to make an effort to work together. Whenever there's a challenge, they have a particular need, they believe, that should be met. We talk about those needs, and try to come to an agreement on where we're going forward. That's how we've done in reopening. We have worked together to create reopening plans that have moved forward pretty seamlessly. We're very encouraged by the way those teams have worked together. So that's our strategy, Sam, is to work together and work with and we will work with Mayor Harris and the challenges that his County faces that he believes we can be of assistance with.

Sam Stockard:

Have you offered to give them more control over nursing home though?

Governor Bill Lee:

No, we think that the way the nursing homes are overseen by the state is the best way to do it. We have the resources in place. We have the testing strategy in place. We have the oversight in place and it's working well. We want to continue for it to be seamless and to be continuous across all 95 counties. That's the direction we're headed.

Sam Stockard:

Okay.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

That's all the time we have.