This is a summary of a press conference Gov. Bill Lee held on Sept. 3. His administration talked about their anticipating a COVID-19 vaccine later this year, as well as pending reporting on the virus in individual schools. Reporters also asked Lee why he did not wear a mask the entire time he attended the Republican National Convention.
Today is the six-month anniversary of the tornadoes. Tennesseans served others during that time despite the virus coming on the scene.
Most of our schools have reopened; many with online options. There have been hurdles to report on cases in individual schools, but we believe we have a way to do that now without compromising privacy.
Penny Schwinn, Education:
On reporting at school and district level: We believe parents and community members deserve to make informed decisions. We worked for weeks to do this. We will launch a dashboard to show information by district. This includes district-reported information on new cases among students and staff; at district level whether workers are deemed critical infrastructure; and any information on remote learning. People can use a map or a drop-down menu. There will be limits on what is reported to protect privacy under FERPA. (More information is at the bottom of this story.)
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health:
Milestone: We had our first case six months ago as of Sept. 4. I am proud of how we use best practices in our daily work, data from CDC and feedback from users of data. After 150,000 cases, we are refreshing our data to reflect improvements: how data points are highlighted on the website. Old data are not being removed, but we will highlight things like day over day changes to reflect the current status over historical status. How long a person is considered infectious: we thought up to 21 days but now it’s 10 to 14 days, and to be consistent with CDC, we are revising active cases to 14 days. This revision will not affect isolation or quarantine protocols. Also, individual county data snapshots will be highlighted in one spot including individual counties with various data.
Today, we identified 1,700 cases since the beginning, or about 1 percent, who had mismatched ZIP codes and county assignments. These are ZIP codes that straddle county lines, and when we looked at them, we realized they were the wrong county. This is since the beginning.
Also, we will change the time considered to be a close contact. CDC said in 6 feet of a person for 10 minutes or more; CDC now says 15 minutes of exposure. Today, we will identify contacts by 15 minutes, which may reduce the number of people in quarantine.
Danielle Barnes, Human Services:
On Pandemic EBT: This helps families of kids who get free or reduced lunch or attend a qualifying school. This program gives benefits for each day school was closed for the pandemic. There have been two rounds: for last school year, and for this new school year. Round One was done through an application process. We served over 500,000 students, over half the students in the state. There are about 200,000 we did not reach. We submitted a plan to the USDA to try to get money to those students.
Round Two will be for August and September for delays of schools and so forth. We will work with districts to identify qualifying students; they must have attended virtual school or a school that closed for five days at least and have been unable to pick up meals at school.
The federal government has reached out to states to plan for an upcoming vaccine or two vaccines to distribute. We are working with the Trump administration. The vaccine will be a personal choice in consultation with people’s doctor.
Q on vaccines and personal choice: Will you get vaccinated?
Lee: I will determine if I believe it is safe and talk to my doctor.
Q on Core Civic, which has had many cases and deaths: Will the state investigate how this happened and will their contracts be extended?
Lee: We will watch this and investigate. We are developing a protocol for all our prisons.
Q: Your COVID liability law, will it protect Core Civic, especially from deaths?
Lee: The law allows for gross negligence, and that applies for any business.
Q: You had been asked previously about changing protocols for visiting nursing homes.
Lee: CMS determines most protocols at nursing homes. We can handle one part and we are waiting for CMS guidance.
Piercey: These people are missing their loved ones. On Aug. 17, I spoke to CMS and they said that in days they would revise staff testing, and that has happened. The other thing was visitation; I expect this soon. If we don’t get that, we will make a decision.
Q: Why now change how the data is reported?
Piercey: How long a person is actually infectious, from 21 to 14 days. Early on, we did not have much data to go on and used SARS as guideline, but that has a longer period than COVID.
Q for Schwinn: What changed that allows you to release some data?
Schwinn: We must balance transparency with privacy of children. We have looked at this with FERPA and HIPAA and consulted with attorneys.
Q for Piercey on vaccines.
Piercey: Phased roll out of vaccine, several hundred thousand doses, in November or December, and start with healthcare workers. There may be two types but we do not know brands.
Q: What level of confidence do you have for Nov. 1 you will be confident these vaccines will be safe enough to take when testing is taking years?
Piercey: I take Nov. 1 with a grain of salt. They didn’t say Nov. 1, but November. The point is made on safety and efficacy. People have pushed for a fast release. The governor said everyone’s personal decision should be their decision on safety and efficacy.
Q: This particular vaccine and it coming out so fast…
Piercey: Safety and efficacy of all vaccines should be considered. We don’t have data. They are in Phase 3 trials, so safety is established; efficacy is being studied. Limited quantities will be available.
Q: On releasing school data, is the delay in releasing data about having more students in school first and not alarming parents before then?
Lee: There is a balance between transparency and protecting privacy. We had hurdles to get past.
Q for Lee: We have seen criticism from some lawmakers about Schwinn and supporting districts. What do you think?
Lee: Our state has in many ways been a leader in opening schools. Our DOE has worked tirelessly with districts. I’m proud of the work.
Q: Today, the ad hoc committee on emergency powers met. There was discussion on not ending the emergency declaration powers.
Lee: Emergency declarations are made based on what’s best for Tennesseans in a pandemic. These are unchartered waters; we have not faced this in decades. We know, we had opinions from the attorney general, the former U.S. attorney general and a former justice of the state Supreme Court that this is OK. They recognize we are in the middle of this.
Q: What will be your criteria to end the state of emergency?
Lee: When we believe ending this is the best decision. When we extended this, we talked about the reasons like flexibility for healthcare workers and government officials to meet remotely. When those will not be needed…
Q for Schwinn on child wellbeing checks: You claimed it would not apply to all students, but internal documents showed it was for every child. Where did that come from?
Schwinn: It is a toolkit document, not a program. There are kids missing school for six months. They get food and mental health services. We want to provide a good education. The toolkit was to give districts a guide to make local decisions.
Q: So, were not all children to be part of the process?
Schwinn: This is no process; it is a toolkit.
Q: When will the revised document come out?
Schwinn: There is no timeline.
Q on Lee’s visit to the Republican National Convention and how they protected visitors.
Lee: I was inspired by the stories of real Americans who love their country. On safety: We wore a mask in and out of the event. Seats were distanced, and it was outdoors.
Q: How would the vaccine work for kids and school; would they be required?
Lee: The federal government says the vaccines that may be available may not be available for children. They are testing populations and efficacy, and we understand from what we know, which is little, it appears the current vaccines coming are not intended for children.
Piercey: Children and pregnant women are not in the studies, so in the first round they will not be included.
Q about RNC: It did not appear from photos … you did not wear a mask at one point, and chairs were close together. You previously said…
Lee: I had an invitation from the president. Once we were in seats, we felt safe and the seats were apart.
Q: Were you tested?
Lee: It’s personal information, but I would not be standing here. …
Q on transparency: Many times, you have not moved forward on a promised request of records reviews, and you clamp down on information. …
Lee: Throughout my life, how I work is, you assimilate the information you have and make a decision. Even if you want to go beyond that, you push, and make a decision, and you might move to a stronger place. These are decisions no one has made before. As things change…we hope they strengthen.
Q: Are you running for re-election?
Lee: I love serving Tennesseans and will do that as long as they let me. That’s a yes.
Q on RNC: You were seated less than 6 feet and did not wear a mask, yet you say people should not attend large gatherings and have an executive order saying football fans must follow guidelines to wear masks outdoors. Why should people do what you say and not do?
Lee: I looked at the situation we were in and the wind was blowing. Each of us has that decision to make. Yes, people should wear a mask where they cannot be appropriately safe in regard to close contact. That was the decision we made that night. That was the right decision for my wife and myself.
Q: Why should people follow your orders?
Lee: That’s the best way to mitigate the spread. People should make decisions on their own.
Q on prisons: In April, we had a similar discussion. Will you admit there was a serious breakdown in what you promised?
Lee: We mass tested our prisons and we have had a continuous protocol. We had a big outbreak this week, which prompted us to increase our strategy for testing. That is a hard population to mitigate. We have not waivered.
Q for Piercey on vaccines: Is this not a daunting task, giving people false hope? Can you get ready?
Piercey: It is daunting, and we did not get a random call. This is something we have been planning for. We got more details recently. This is not dissimilar for mass vaccinations for flu.
Q: Those are proven techniques that took years. We can’t even say what vaccine. …
Piercey: I’m talking about logistics. There is much we don’t know yet. There is much interest. It will be a while before we have all the answers.
Q for Jeff McCord, Labor commissioner, on unemployment: There have been calls on the FEMA money and how many people are getting it.
McCord: We have given the first round. You must reapply every week. We reapplied for the week of the 22nd. This is new to FEMA and us. We hoped to give the second round this week but it probably will be next week to get it and then another week to distribute.
That is the end of the press conference. Listed below is information provided Thursday from the Tennessee Department of Education about reporting cases in schools.
Next week, as the final two districts in the state begin the new school year, a new dashboard will launch on the department’s website that will display information reported by districts about COVID-19 in their communities, and whether or how positive cases within a school may impact the way teachers deliver instruction to students.
The sharing of student information is stringently protected under the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and protecting personally identifiable information of our youngest Tennesseans is critically important. To ensure protections of individual privacy, schools with fewer than 50 students will not be reported in the dashboard. For schools reporting under five positive student or employee COVID-19 cases, the school will be listed without a specific number of cases for the category.
At the district level, the dashboard will provide district-reported information on the number of new positive COVID-19 cases amongst students, the number of new positive COVID-19 cases amongst staff, and the primary operating model for schools within the district, including the number of schools conducting in-person learning, the number of schools conducting remote learning, and the number of schools utilizing a hybrid approach for instruction. In addition, the dashboard will display whether the district has adopted a critical infrastructure designation for certain workers, as well as a link to the district’s Continuous Learning Plan (CLP) which outlines how the district plans to administer remote learning.
At the school level, the dashboard will provide district-reported information on the number of new positive COVID-19 cases amongst students, number of new positive COVID-19 cases amongst staff, and whether adjustments from the district’s primary operating model have been made within the school. Students and staff listed as positive does not necessarily indicate they contracted COVID-19 at the school building.
Users will have two ways to access information:
- A map view— An interactive map of the state of Tennessee will enable users to hover over their county or region and select their school to reveal more information.
- And a menu view—A drop-down menu will allow users to quickly select a particular district of interest to reveal more information.
To protect individual privacy, schools with fewer than 50 students are not reported in this data. Further, for schools reporting a number that is fewer than five positive student or employee COVID-19 cases, the school will be listed without a specific number of cases for the category.