This is a summary of a press conference Gov. Bill Lee held on July 14.
The abortion legal challenge is disheartening but we will defend the bill.
CARES Act funding is going directly to businesses that were closed by executive order.
School openings and COVID responses are intertwined.
Our goal is to have in-person learning for as many as possible. We are helping local districts by giving them information to make decisions. Many decisions have yet to be made. We will say more next week.
My mask is not political. Shaming people either way on masks is not something Tennesseans should be doing. It is a personal decision that might save an elderly person’s life or to keep a business open.
The return of live sports: Tomorrow night, Bristol will host the All-Star race with fans in a limited capacity. Masks will be required. We did testing for people working at the track. NASCAR has been a great partner and that can be a model for the nation.
People are growing weary of the pandemic. I am too. It seems longer than 120 days.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health commissioner:
The case count could have sticker shock if you don’t understand them. The overall raw number of cases can be startling, so consider it as average in trends and positivity rate, or attack rate, in the variability of testing. Our case counts tend to be front-loaded in the beginning of the week. This has more to do with back reporting of labs than daily increase. Because of that, do as we do, and look at rolling averages over time. You still cannot ignore the fact there were 3,300 new people with the virus, and that is concerning to us, but keep it in context.
Consider the context of the number of tests made that day. Yesterday’s positivity rate was 9.2 percent…tracked over time the positivity rate controls for trends. It’s hanging around plus or minus 9 percent range, which is reassuring.
Hospitalization rates are going up. Today, 870 hospitalized patients with a COVID diagnosis. Fortunately, for the ICU rate and ventilator rates, the rate of rise is not as steep as hospitalizations. That is a credit to things learned over last several months, including ventilator treatment protocols. This disease is different; other diseases, we want to give lungs a rest and get on ventilator fast. We learned with COVID, patients do better off ventilator.
The use of Remdesivir…is used in sickest of the sick. Not necessarily for outpatient use. For hospitalized and ventilator patients. Federal government is giving us some doses. In July and August will make it available to hospitals to order directly.
No hospital in the state is in crisis mode. But Memphis and Nashville … especially are starting to feel strain from increased rates. We are in daily contact with local hospital leaders and state hospital association to understand and keep up with daily needs and challenges.
There will be a growing number of people exposed to someone infected. What does close contact mean? There is confusion. It is not brief and casual interaction, walking by someone’s desk. It is defined as less than six feet for 10 minutes or more. You can communicate with local public health officials. You may receive notice you were in contact and what to do in quarantine. Please answer this call and give as much information as you can. They will never ask for your Social Security Number and financial information. If you quarantine, do so for 14 days from last contact with that infected person. Don’t go anywhere. Many people believe negative test in quarantine will get you out of jail; that’s not true. There is no safe way to test your way out of quarantine. After you finish the 14 days you don’t need negative test to go back out.
Lee: If you vote in person, wear a mask. Participate in the Census.
Q: Schools are opening in a couple of weeks. Teachers are anxious and what to do if a teacher gets sick. What happens then and have all those students, must they quarantine?
Lee: There is anxiety. There will be protocols for how to respond to positive tests available from the Department of Education. Different districts may do different things. We may have more on that next week.
Q: Considering teacher pay…14 days or more for sick pay?
Lee: I cannot answer that now.
Q: If a school has multiple positives, will they go to online learning?
Lee: The approach will be to quarantine as few as possible. You may close a classroom or hallway or wing or school before you close a district.
Q: Testing of kids and teachers, who handles that?
Lee: We are allowing districts to make decisions on the ground.
Q: There are so many active cases. How many can you trace?
Piercey: At least half are community spread and you cannot identify a source. Tracing is a critical piece of this response. I encourage people to answer the phone and give information they are comfortable giving. There are many variables on success rate. Do we have the appropriate contact information and can we reach them? Overall, we can connect with 85 plus percent of people we know about.
Q: If more Tennesseans don’t wear a mask or a mask does not slow the positivity rate, what other tools do you have?
Lee: It is hypothetical. We consider any number of options we have. The biggest data point is hospitalizations and capacity. There are many things that can be done. We are working with the providers who know more about surge capacity and sharing resources.
Lee: A targeted approach is the best way. There are places with a lot of spread, and there are areas that do not. A one-size approach is not best. Unified Command visits areas in risk of spread and talk to the people. That’s why we gave authority to local mayors on masks.
Q: does it make some areas like Sumner County but next door but not doing a mandate…look like some are taking it more seriously than others?
Lee: It is a reason I keep talking about why this is important. Sometimes a mandate can be counter-productive to buy-in.
Q: Does the state have an opinion of whether it should be in-class?
Lee: Our goal is in-class.
Q: You called the legal challenge to abortion as disheartening. It could also be costly.
Lee: The lives of Tennesseans are worth defending.
Q: Are you taking a blank check approach?
Lee: Whatever it takes, we will defend it.
Q: What is your goal on COVID testing? Are you trying to mitigate, suppress it? How far are we from that and what needs to be done?
Piercey: It could be semantics. There is not a place in our country for a full suppression. Look at other nations that did so, but with measures Americans would not tolerate. Our goal is to mitigate the spread and keep cases down as much as possible. And balance with the economy. For testing, we have a lot of testing. The problem is lab-throughput. That is a problem all over the nation. I had good talks in the past week about ways to expand the current testing methodology. Pooling: Samples in one vial in some cases. Salivary testing is being developed as a more comfortable option than nasal swabs. More staff and hours are options. Do we have enough testing? I would like to see the positivity rate go down: That takes more testing and having fewer people being sick.
Piercey: We are watching the lab turnaround time of about 25 labs. The ones with five to six days turnaround are still about the same. There may have been incremental improvement. It will take a few weeks. Larger labs will have expanded capacity in a week or two.
Q: For hospitalizations not going down…what options are there?
Lee: I am not considering closing the economy back down. There are options to expand capacity. The hospitals say they know more now. We want them to solve that problem themselves. They think they can. But we still have capacity before using surge capacity.
Piercey: During a bad flu season, there may be 3 percent capacity left. I have worked at hospitals where we have to look at beds every few hours; we are not close to that now. No one likes to be there.
Q: Is it accurate to say we would not have more restrictions?
Q: You say you wear a mask in public and encourage people to wear when voting. As we see many politicians campaigning…not. You are photographed as only politician wearing a mask. Should legislators wear a mask?
Lee: I think I have been clear… I don’t want to close businesses again. One way is to mitigate the spread. You can do that by wearing a mask.
Q: Any update on a special session?
Lee: Not yet. We think there will be one. There are on-going talks.
Q: Last night, the Williamson county Commission voted to form a task force to consider if the county seal (with a Confederate battle flag) needs to change. The Historical Commission would have to approve. Would you vote in favor?
Lee: I have not seen their proposal. The Fuller Story in Franklin that worked with the local community to make sure the story is told…the idea of tearing down monuments is not the way to do it in Tennessee, but to engage with the community. That is what they are doing.
Q: If there are tens of thousands of parents who have their kids do online learning, are you considering steps to use extra unemployment funds to help those parents if they are called back to work?
Lee: There are funds available.
Q: Is there any more to increase the number of contact tracers?
Piercey: Every day. We are working with agencies to bring on staff. We are looking at technology – not tracking software. For the last 100 years, we have not had this type of pandemic and do not know how many we need. We are adding staff every day.
Q: Should the Historical Commission meet sooner than October on the Forrest bust?
Lee: I think that is a statutory date.
Q: How will you vote in the primary? By mail?
Lee: I will wear a mask and vote in person.
Q for Piercey: As a mother, how will you look at the school where your kids will go?
Piercey: I have four kids. One will start college. The other three are in public high school. I want them to prioritize in-classroom instruction. I have seen the difference for my kids doing online learning.
Q: I want the school to prioritize in-class learning. They need a plan for when things will happen. Things will happen. I am a working parent. I also work two hours away from home as many parents do. Parents need a predictable schedule and it is not a knee-jerk reaction. I want my kids’ school to work with their local health official.