This is a summary of Gov. Bill Lee’s July 23 press conference.
Lee said the state’s PSA ads are changing as the response to the virus changes. The first PSA was “Do your part, stay apart.” Today, the state launched a campaign called “Face It: Masks Fight COVID-19.”
The state’s financial accountability group announced a $150 million grant fund for nonprofits for groups that are serving COVID-19 needs like emergency food assistance, workforce training and homeless care.
The state still has a $200 million fund for businesses that were affected by the stay at home order. The state needs to hear from more of these businesses.
There is a new $115 million grant source for local governments in addition to a previous $200 million grant.
Local governments pushing masks lead to a greater acceptance by the public. Lee gave kudos to several county mayors for how they are using the $115 million, including Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn testified before Congress today about Tennessee’s work. This is the third time the department has shared its work with Congress.
Next week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release guidelines and data to help schools reopen safely. We will discuss this at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health commissioner:
Lab turnaround time: We have struggled with this not only in Tennessee. This is new testing. With any new process, it takes time to scale up. Labs in Tennessee have done an excellent job. Demand is just outpacing what most of our labs can supply.
In last 7 days, we have an average of 2.84 days with 1-8 days range for turnaround. On 2.84, you may think it took longer for yourself: You have to add transport time and reporting time. 2.84 is the average of it reaching the lab. Over the past week or two, we had all hands on deck. On commercial side, we tried to help with any supply chain issues private labs had; we have resources and education on where they can look. We gave guidance to new labs trying to enter the market. On state public health side, we have a lab, not a large one, but we can control it; we are hiring new staff and ordered new equipment and making operational changes to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Pooling is being done. This is running more than one sample in the same tube.
White House report: They updated it and we got it Monday night. There are more counties and metro areas in what they call the red zone than there were last week. Last week there were 100 or more cases per 100,000. There are now 10 metros and 24 counties in the red zone. New ones: Cleveland, Morristown and Brownsville. Madison County is new to the list. This means we need to have a clear focus on what people can do to help.
Q: One senate candidate was suggesting not holding public campaign events because of the virus. What do you say?
Lee: Each one needs to have his or her strategy and do it in a safe way.
Q: Last week you delayed an execution. What were the challenges involved?
Lee: There has been limited access to prisons for visitors. So there has been a limit to the normal process of developing clemency requests and the need to focus resources on COVID.
Followup: If it’s too challenging to hold an execution, what about schools?
Lee: That inmate is allowed due process to get to a place to request clemency. He did not believe he had the appropriate environment. Why open schools? Kids need to be in schools. Mental health is an issue. Child abuse reporting is way down and teachers are reporters of abuse. Parents need kids in school so they can work. We need schools open as long as we protect people.
Q: Should schools reopen?
Q: Have you talked about reopening with your wife Maria who was a teacher?
Lee: I’ll let Maria make comments herself. The health of teachers is important. We’re working to protect them. The same with kids.
Q: We heard from teachers who quit over health concerns. What would you say to teachers who are worried?
Lee: We are all very concerned about the health of Tennesseans. That is why we are trying to protect them and give choices. Parents should have a choice. If that choice is in-person then we need to provide that for them. This is challenging – we know that.
Q: Is there a choice for teachers?
Lee: We want to give teachers a safe option. That is why we are giving PPE and giving options to districts.
Q: The Williamson County superintendent asked you for waivers on TCAP tests, the 180 days of teaching, 6.5 hours of teaching per day. You denied his request and said we need to measure students’ progress. What is the importance of schools meeting these standards?
Lee: We must understand the impact of COVID-19 on schools. No one knows yet what the impact of closure will have. The only way to know is to make assessments. We believe parents should know, that teachers should know, and that we as community know where our children stand from having closed schools.
Followup: Is that off the table, giving waivers?
Lee: We want to look at each request by a district.
Q: President Trump shifted his stand on wearing masks. Some states have mandated. But I feel many will not wear them. Why not give a mandate?
Lee: The most effective way is to have buy-in. A mandate is simply a mandate. It doesn’t equate to mask wearing. When people trust other people. There is a great deal of trust at the local level.
Q: The federal unemployment money is about to run out. Will the state step in to supplement the amount people get?
Lee: We have made no plans to do that.
One reporter asked about clemency requests.
Lee: I will take those requests one at a time. Every case is different.
Followup: Why do governors wait until the end of term?
Lee: I’ve never been a governor before.
Q: Remdesivir and ICU treatment: Is what we have learned one reason we are above water on hospital capacity?
Piercey: We know so much more now than we did four months ago. Remdesivir is one of those things that came up in past 90 days and is now widespread. In the sickest, it allows them to have a higher survival rate. We have shored up the supply chain for that drug. Convalescent plasma.
We got 8,400 from the federal government but are moving to a wholesale supply system where hospitals can get it themselves.
Q: In the Republican Senate campaign, who you vote for? The reporter mentioned Dr. Manny Sethi and another candidate. Lee: We have two great folks on the Republican side, and Tennessee will be well served with either.
Q: Over 7,800 children were diagnosed with COVID-19. Some schools say they can’t mandate masks because the county mayors’ authorizations will expire. Will you renew that?
Lee: We talk with districts twice a week. We are finalizing recommendations.
A reporter asked Piercey about the hospitalization rate and will Nashville or Memphis have to activate their emergency wards.
Piercey: We have seen a leveling of patients there. The next rise is happening in Jackson and the Tri-Cities. So, no. But we want to make sure hospitals can surge in place and we are in frequent contact with them.
Q for Lee: Madison County and Jackson mayors asked for statewide mandate because their hospitals are full of people from out of county where there are no mandates. Would you like to see every mayor make a mandate?
Lee: If there is a county that has the numbers that warrant, then their leadership should talk about that. Unified Command Group is visiting counties to talk to local leaders.
Followup: What is a valid reason for a county not doing this?
Lee: Local leaders must make a decision for themselves. Local leaders are accountable to their citizens.
Q: You don’t see an economic or health downside to wearing a mask?
Lee: Masks help. It gives them confidence to go out and engage in businesses. That is why I will say “Face It.”
Followup: National data on mask wearing showed Tennessee near the bottom. Why are Tennesseans reluctant?
Lee: I can only talk about what our response should be. Give authority to local leaders and launch a campaign.