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May 7, 2020

Thank you for joining me for our Thursday briefing as we update you on actions taken to fight COVID-19 as well as our continued efforts to safely re-open Tennessee’s economy. Before we get started today, many Americans are pausing to observe the National Day of Prayer. Congress has designated this day as a time to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.” 

As our state has faced significant troubles in the last couple of months, through natural disasters, this pandemic, loss of life, loss of jobs and many other disruptions, our prayers remain steadfast. The First Lady and I lift up our state and our country today, recognizing that God is sovereign through times of peril, prosperity and everything in between.  We also offer prayers of thanks for the people of our state, for their resilience and for the honor to serve them as we care for each other during these times. 

In addition to the National Day of Prayer, it is also Correctional Officer Week. We thank the Tennesseans who show up to work each day and faithfully serve in our jails, prisons and community corrections centers. These professionals have especially stepped up during this public health crisis and we commend them for serving in a critical function. 

We also thank Tennessee nurses as we recognize Nurses Week. As frontline health care workers, you have risked your own health to care for the sick and fight this pandemic. We commend your efforts. Gen. Holmes will share information about a fly-over that is planned for next week to honor frontline health care workers for their tireless contributions in getting our state back on its feet.

This week, we also recognize our Tennessee teachers. While the school year looks different than we ever would have imagined, you have gone above and beyond to connect with your students and keep them engaged through this pandemic. Thank you for your work.  

Our COVID-19 case count is: 

  • 14,096 cases, roughly a 1% increase over yesterday with more than 9,000 tests added in
  • 6,783 recovered
  • 237 deaths

During our time today, I will outline the future of testing efforts as well as more about what our Economic Recovery Group is doing to support Tennessee businesses as they adopt the Tennessee Pledge and best practices to protect employees and customers. Commissioner McCord will also give a brief update from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.  

We are quickly approaching a quarter of a million COVID-19 tests conducted in Tennessee. This milestone is a testament to the power of the private sector and the strength of the Unified-Command group in coordinating efforts and reducing barriers for Tennesseans to receive a test. 

As a state, we will continue to work to test 2% of our population this month, in keeping with President Trump’s request to ensure aggressive testing. Our rural health departments continue to test 5 days a week, free of charge and we encourage any Tennessean to remember “when in doubt, get a test.”

This month, we will focus especially on targeted populations by expanding COVID-19 testing to every long-term care facility in the state and also testing within every state correctional facility to reach our inmate population. We are also working with our state veterans homes to ensure every resident and staff member will be tested by the end of next week. 

These efforts are underway and Dr. Piercey will share more about how these efforts are progressing. 

This month, The Unified-Command group is specifically expanding COVID-19 testing to minority populations and is engaging with organizations that have a large membership base.

We are engaged in ongoing discussions with local leaders and community officials in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga to strategize testing events among low-income urban communities.  This is an effort to bring testing events and opportunities directly to a large, vulnerable population living in a high-density residential setting. 

We thank local leaders in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga for their partnership as we work to ensure every Tennessean has access to free testing. 

In addition to targeted testing for these populations, the Tennessee National Guard has plans to test more than 10,000 personnel by the end of May. 

Our Economic Recovery Group has completed the first round of guidance for Tennessee businesses from construction to close-contact as they begin adopting safe procedures through the Tennessee Pledge. 

Parts of our state are beginning to re-open in ways that will likely encourage more people to get out and about, especially for recreation. The federal government is allowing parts of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to re-open this weekend and we anticipate visitors. We remind Tennesseans the importance of social distancing and utilizing cloth masks. 

We especially encourage businesses in these areas to utilize the Tennessee Pledge guidelines in preparing for a potential influx of out of state visitors. Commissioner Ezell of the Economic Recovery Group will be on the ground in East Tennessee tomorrow to work directly with stakeholders as they prepare for the re-opening of the park. 

Free, reusable cloth masks are available at every state health department so Tennesseans can utilize face coverings. 

In addition, to the guidance we have offered Tennessee businesses, we are working to make supplies accessible. I mentioned earlier this week that the state is encouraging temperature checks for employees and customers. 

While there is a shortage of touchless thermometers, we secured more than 17,500 thermometers through a third party vendor so that our state’s businesses could purchase them at cost. Tennessee businesses stepped up and we are officially sold out. We are encouraged that our state’s businesses are working to follow guidance and we will keep working to support them in this. 

Before we move to reports and q&a, I’d like to touch base about mental health. 

As Tennesseans face new realities, whether it’s facing the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the anxiety of adopting new routines, we recognize that mental health can be strained. Our Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse reminds every Tennessean that our crisis hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 855-274-7471 or text “TN” to 741-741. 

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you all. We'll have questions. We have members of the Unified Command Group here with us as well as Dr. Piercey, and as you saw, Commissioner Ezell with our Economic Recovery Group is here as well. Before we go to the questions, I just want to thank Tennesseans once again. Thank you for responding in the ways that you've been asked to respond. Thank you for your work by serving one another. Thank you for taking individual responsibility. I implore you to continue down that path. We are in the middle of this, and we need to continue to do the things that we have been doing.

Governor Bill Lee:

As I've said many, many times, we will do everything humanly possible to make sure that we protect the lives of Tennesseans, and that we can protect the livelihoods as well. We can do everything even humanly possible, but I remind everyone again, today is the National Day of Prayer, and while we will do all we can, I encourage you to ask God to grant us favor, give us wisdom and discernment as we move through this. That he comfort the sick in our midst, and those who have lost life in the middle of this, who face fear and anxiety, that he would comfort them as well. So we thank you for what you're doing, and for joining with us. I'd be happy to take questions.

Speaker 2:

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

Jonathan Mattise:

Hey governor. Thanks for taking my question.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yes sir.

Jonathan Mattise:

Yesterday you said that you would no longer be taking the ESA applications while the court case is proceeding. I wonder what changed for you? Did you get some advice that you should not be accepting applications for that while the court has the injunction in place, and where do you get the advice from?

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah, actually we continued to receive the applications, just not to process them. Today the application process, the deadline, ends today. We didn't promote that, but if applications were coming in we continued to receive those applications but not process them.

Jonathan Mattise:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

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

Natalie Allison:

Hello governor,-

Governor Bill Lee:

Natalie.

Natalie Allison:

... and this question may also be for Dr. Piercey, but I wanted to talk about this 98% asymptomatic rate that you all have reported from the state prison. My question is, first of all, what is the criteria that the state is using to label inmates and staff as asymptomatic? And is that based on what inmates have self-reported, because they have told some reporters and some advocates that they have been ill with symptoms consistent with COVID.

Natalie Allison:

Then, how do you all interpret this high asymptomatic rate? Some people are saying this is not a good sign, that as the state reopens there may be way more people than we expected walking around as carriers. Then other people are saying that this is great news, and it's evidence that way more people than expected have already had it, and weren't as affected. What is your interpretation of that data?

Dr. Piercey:

Your first question has to do with basically symptom tracking of inmates, and the 98% asymptomatic was in the Trousdale facility. They keep a log of all inmates that either report symptoms or are showing symptoms, and keep a very extensive log of those symptoms. By and large these are self-report, so that the inmates look well and tell staff that they feel well, and so we don't have any reason not to believe them.

Dr. Piercey:

As far as your question, about the large percentage of asymptomatic cases, it's a very interesting scientific phenomenon. You've heard me call it a head-scratcher, and I continue to reach out to colleagues and infectious disease experts about why we are seeing this nationally in these contained populations. Interestingly, the MMWR, which is a publication out of the CDC, the W in MMWR stands for weekly, they put out a weekly report of hot topics, and this was the one that came out just yesterday about this very high asymptomatic rate.

Dr. Piercey:

It appears to be somewhat unique to these contained populations, and that's important because it's going to lend a false sense of security to people if we extrapolate that out to the general population. We do not believe the general population has that high of an asymptomatic rate. What we can't explain yet, because again, I've said it many times, this is a novel or a new virus that we've really just been dealing with for less than six months in the world to our knowledge, and so we don't know everything about it yet, but we don't think the rate of asymptomatic spread is that high in the general population.

Dr. Piercey:

I've seen reports as low as 25 to 50%. I don't know how accurate that is. We're still trying to track that number. As the governor mentioned earlier, if you think you need a test, get a test. Even if you don't really think you need a test, but you're going back to work, get a test. That's going to help us determine what the asymptomatic or carriage rate is in the general population. But I want to be clear, we do not think it's anywhere close to that high in the general population.

Natalie Allison:

Thank you, and governor, or maybe someone else can answer this question. On the topic of correctional officers, can you clarify whether officers who have tested positive for coronavirus, and are being sent home to isolate, are still being paid, because based on what some of the officers are saying that's still unclear.

Governor Bill Lee:

I'll have to clarify that, but my belief is that they are. But I'll have to clarify that.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Chris Bundgaard with WKRN. Chris, your line is open.

Chris Bundgaard:

Good afternoon governor. You brought up recognizing teachers. Do you have a sense yet when and what it will look like when a million K through 12 kids begin next school year, and when that might be?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, the legislature determines the school year dates, and so they will certainly weigh in on that. We certainly hope that kids are going back to school in the fall. There are a lot of parents that are hoping that as well. We know so little about this virus and what it will look like through May, and June, and July, but we certainly will follow that with great interest especially because it has such a significant impact on our kids. We'll be working with local districts as well, but as far as the dates that school will start back, that's a legislative decision.

Chris Bundgaard:

If I may follow on that, do you see it, and perhaps you've addressed this in the past, but maybe you can offer an update about whether this will be a local decision, or recommendation from a state level of when districts will go back, and what they will look like, and whether it'll be remote learning or back in classes.

Governor Bill Lee:

Yeah. One of the unique things about what we have learned in this process is that we've learned a lot about education, and about what's possible, and what might be possible in the future. But certainly local school districts know best what's happening in their communities. But as far as a decision about how a school year will be determined, who will go back when, it's several months down the road, a lot not known about that. So I can't speak to the exact nature of the process there. It'll be much like it has been in the past.

Chris Bundgaard:

Thank you governor. We'll be asking the question again in a few weeks probably.

Governor Bill Lee:

I bet you will. Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next we'll go to Caleb Perhne with WCYB. Caleb, your line is open.

Caleb Perhne:

Hey governor. I wanted to ask you, as we're ramping up testing the number of new cases and the number of active cases are going up, and are going up, so what metric are you looking at and what metric should people look at to know if we're keeping the spread down as businesses reopen?

Governor Bill Lee:

I think I'm going to let Dr. Piercey answer specifically to that because we're starting to track cases in a different way. But we are changing our strategy a bit in the way that we are testing. It's not just that we're doing more testing, we're doing more targeted testing, and that really changes the way our positive- Dr. Piercey, you want to comment on that and what that might mean for metrics?

Dr. Piercey:

Sure. I mean, we are looking at a list of metrics. I realized that a lot of people get focused on case count. That's certainly one of them. Day over day growth and the trajectory of that, but many other metrics including one very important one which has health system capacity, and if you'll remember weeks and weeks ago, I know it seems like a lifetime ago when we first started introducing the term [inaudible 00:00:31] the curve.

Dr. Piercey:

Flattening the curve was never about eliminating or completely removing the threat of this virus. We know that the threat of the virus is going to be there until we have a vaccine and develop herd immunity. But what flattening the curve is really about, and what all of our efforts are really about, is maintaining our health system capacity and stretching out that curve, therefore, it's flatter, so our hospitals can keep up with the demand. So, we're looking at several different metrics. That's just two of them. That's not the only two.

Dr. Piercey:

The other thing that we're doing that is a bit different than what we did at the beginning is we're looking more at specific areas, and not only geographic areas, but population areas such as prisons and long-term care facilities and minority populations and other different specific populations that might have a higher risk, or be more vulnerable, so we can make sure and target our efforts where they are most needed. On a geographic scale, we took a very wide, broad approach to our initial efforts because this was a new threat to all of us. And so, we acted uniformly across the state.

Dr. Piercey:

Going forward, and what we've already started doing, is looking at this in different regions. Metro regions, rural regions, different parts of the state, and I think everyone would agree not every part of the of Tennessee is the same. Population density is different. Different factors vary from rural to urban. And so, we are looking at it in a what I have termed a much more surgical approach instead of a shotgun approach. That will help us to not only target where the issues may be, but it will help us to better target our interventions in those places where we don't have to affect areas that might not be as heavily impacted.

Caleb Perhne:

And in our region up in Northeast Tennessee, there are three nursing homes that are on your list of clusters, but all of those nursing homes that told us that their tests were false positives and that the Department of Health is looking into that. Is there a widespread issue of false positives?

Dr. Piercey:

No, there's not a widespread issue of false positives, but I am aware of the issue you're referencing. I'm aware of a nursing home in Elizabethton that had that issue and I wouldn't be surprised that a couple of more had that. It's my understanding that early on in this process they used a lab not associated with the state that had some validity concerns. Those have subsequently been rectified and we have made those adjustments or are making those adjustments on our website. I know our state epidemiologist was in touch personally with one of those facilities yesterday. And so, getting that worked out, I don't consider that a widespread problem at all.

Caleb Perhne:

Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next and we'll go do Jake Chapman with WRCB. Jake, your line is open.

Jake Chapman:

Gotcha. Hey, Governor. This is more for ... Just about the National Guard assisting the housing authority and testing it. Is there like a ballpark of how many tests that are going to be handed out statewide to assisted living at all?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we have a goal. I'll say broadly this, and then I'll let General Holmes talk about the assisted living testing process. There are 70,000 residents and 70,000 staff in long-term care facilities in this state and we intend for every one of them to be tested. So, that's about 150,000 ... It is 140,000 exactly. We have a goal of testing. Moving our testing numbers to about 10,000 a day across the state. We have had days where we've tested 10,000 multiple times, but we want that to be more consistent because we want to be testing a larger portion of our population. And then, we're also testing the National Guard to the tune of how many?

General Holmes:

12,000.

Governor Bill Lee:

12,000 National Guardsmen. Would you like to talk a little further about this specific strategy for nursing homes?

General Holmes:

Yes, sir. So, we have a plan which is focused on public housing, the large concentration of public housing in all of our metropolitan cities. That's going to be an enormous task, but it's a doable task, and it's going to take probably a week and a half and there's going to be a lot of planning involved because each one of these large housing units are different. So, the purpose will be to make it as convenient as possible to test all the residents. So that may mean setting up tentage or something in a Portico in the parking area, going to a common area that's frequented by the residents, and make it as convenient as possible.

General Holmes:

So, we have a systematic plan. We'll hit all the big six areas. We'll do this deliberately and it'll be in close coordination with the Metro Health Department and the local officials there. We'll front load all the PPE and test kits. It'll probably take two days at each one of these facilities, and there'll be a break in between each one of those as we kind of focus on that. So we'll be doing one of those units at a time and we'll just continue to chisel away at it until we get all those complete.

Jake Chapman:

Gotcha. And I guess, for me, just to follow up on that, do you believe public housing in those areas that they could be a hotspot for the virus? Since, like you said, there are a lot of people in a confined area.

Dr. Piercey:

I'll take that one. Yes, absolutely. We are actually learning some lessons that have come out of New York City and other very densely-populated areas. Obviously, we don't have any places in Tennessee that are as densely populated as New York City, but we do know that crowded housing and housing where people are living in closer quarters, apartment-style living, is associated with higher rates of transmission.

Dr. Piercey:

That's pretty logical when you think about it. We've already talked today about contained populations. That even in a household, it's just really intuitive to figure out if you have less room to spread out, you're more likely to transmit to one another. And so, not only in housing projects do you have closer quarters, but you also are dealing with disparities and sometimes other issues, whether it's language barrier or transportation difficulties that put people into mass transit more often and closer contact. There's a lot of nuances in urban populations that could increase the rate of spread and that's why we are specifically targeting those areas.

Jake Chapman:

Yeah, thank you.

Speaker 2:

Next, we'll go to Grace King with WBIR. Grace, your line is open.

Grace King:

Thank you. Good afternoon, Governor. I know you touched a little bit on this earlier, but last weekend we went to Gatlinburg to see how things were going. Not a lot of social distancing, hardly any masks, even on employees. A lot of the shops we saw had some taking precaution, but certainly not all of them. What's your response to that and your message to people who want the [inaudible]?

Governor Bill Lee:

I didn't fully understand your question, but I think it was, what is our response to Gatlinburg and some challenges with lots of folks being there and certain businesses responding or not responding. So, one of the things that is most important to us is that we get the word out to businesses that they understand what the Tennessee pledge is and why it is particularly important to protect their employees and their citizens. We know that an area like Gatlinburg will have a lot of visitors from out of Tennessee that may not have been hearing all of our messages.

Governor Bill Lee:

It's one of the reasons that we need for our employees to understand it fully. It's the reason that Commissioner Ezell, who heads up our economic recovery group, will be on the ground there meeting with officials, meeting with business leaders, meeting with stakeholders who all have an interest in making sure that our businesses in that community are operated safely and that people do understand how important this social distancing requirement and effort is. That is our goal. That's why we're targeting that region. That's why he'll be there tomorrow. That's where why we're making a particular effort to work with those businesses to make sure that Tennesseeans are safe there.

Grace King:

Would you consider any level of enforcement at some point if people continue to show up and not wear masks in public?

Governor Bill Lee:

You know, people ask a lot about enforcement and it's really important. First of all, as I've said before, I don't want to start with the premise that people are not going to comply. We think that folks have a vested interest in compliance. Certainly businesses do because Tennesseeans want to be safe themselves. They want to go into businesses that they know are safe. There is a reason for self enforcement there.

Governor Bill Lee:

We've also said that if there is a bad actor or there is someone who's willfully not willing to engage, then we certainly want to engage with them, have the health department give them education, an understanding of why this really matters, and we want to interact with them if they're not in compliance. But, the vast majority of businesses so far in this state have been. We're very encouraged by that, and we want to continue to give them the tools and the information necessary in order for them to provide a safe environment for Tennesseeans.

Speaker 2:

Next, we'll go to Bill Dries with the Daily Memphian. Bill, your line is open.

Bill Dries:

Governor, over the duration of this pandemic, how much conflict has there been between the concept of doing all you can do to protect lives and doing all you can to protect livelihoods? Are there some differences in those two goals?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, I think what's most important is that we uphold both, and it's possible to do that. People say it's "either, or." It really is both. Recognizing that the safety of our citizens is first and foremost, public health and the life of a Tennesseean has the highest value of all, and our public safety is the utmost concern. But we also know that we can't keep our economy shutdown forever. We made important steps to protect the health of Tennesseeans, recognizing that we needed to take steps to protect the long-term livelihood of Tennesseeans.

Governor Bill Lee:

So, really it has not been the struggle between those two, but the balance there and finding that right balance to navigate our way through a real crisis and pandemic that had very little answers and that we knew very little about, but that we worked really hard to follow data. Data around the health piece of this and the medical side of it, but then also data around the economics and how it would impact Tennesseeans. That's been why these have been very difficult decisions balancing those two as we go forward. But I think we've made the right decisions at the right time for Tennessee.

Bill Dries:

All right. I wanted to ask you about the state's nursing home laws. Our county mayor here, Lee Harris, who is a former State Senator, has talked about the need to change. He says to "change state laws to make nursing homes more liable for things they should have done but didn't do in this." He says, "The state laws got too deregulated." What are your thoughts on that? Is there a proposal in order here to change nursing home regulation?

Governor Bill Lee:

Well, we don't have a current plan to change the way that nursing homes are overseen, but I'd like Dr. Piercey to specifically address that because the state does have that authority and oversight of nursing homes through Department of Health.

Dr. Piercey:

What I can tell you about nursing homes is that they contain some of our most vulnerable Tennesseeans. I would venture to guess that every single nursing home would tell you that they are in one of the, if not the, most regulated industries in the world. They have an incredibly high regulatory burden, but that's really important because their population is vulnerable. Sometimes their population can't speak for themselves or care for themselves. And so our surveyors and investigators and our board are all incredibly focused on making sure these folks stay safe.

Dr. Piercey:

And so, the governor's right. We don't have any intent to change any laws or rules at this time, but I do want to remind you that it's very impactful work that we do there and we continue to do everything we can to protect these vulnerable Tennesseeans.

Bill Dries:

All right. Thank you.

Governor Bill Lee:

Thank you, Bill.

Speaker 2:

That's all the time we have for questions today, Governor. If you'd like to make a closing statement.