Lee July 1

Gov. Bill Lee and his health commissioner on Wednesday said they are working to enable local governments to mandate mask use and they both spoke against people who “pack” into bars and graduations and people who don’t wear masks, and hinted the state will continue enacting measures until there is a vaccine.

Lee held one of his periodic COVID-19 press conferences Wednesday with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. Most of the conversation was on the coronavirus, but Lee also spoke about possibly allowing the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the Capitol.

What follows is a summary of the press conference, which was livestreamed.

Lee’s opening remarks:

COVID-19 is serious. This is why I extended the state of emergency. This does not pause the reopening of schools. We are working with the TSSAA for football and soccer to move forward. People will have to embrace precautions.

He mentioned “Until there is a vaccine.”

People are taking unnecessary risks by packing into bars or other large gatherings.

Today the state had over 1,800 new cases, a record high.

Counties outside urban areas like Bradley and Rutherford County: Residents should make time to be tested at the local health department and stay home when possible.

Don’t put our state behind by not wearing a mask.

Don’t pack bars in happy hours.

I’m asking every Tennessean once again to get us back on track. I wear a mask every single day as a courtesy. This helps our economy.

Mask mandates are a hot topic. Face coverings are one of the more effective tools. Urban areas have high case rates. But locals are asking for ideas, and we are studying ways to make authority for areas with the highest level of cases. We will have a resolution hopefully soon.

Today, Lee signed Executive Order 53 to provide limited liability protection to healthcare workers. He said he will soon call a special session of the Legislature to address business liability.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, Health Department:

This (growing cases) is not due to more testing. We have a growing problem in Tennessee, including rural areas. There is a drastic rise in the Knoxville metro area and multiple rural counties, including Sevier, Rutherford, Macon and Bradley. Now, at least half of cases are from an unknown source, or community transmission, meaning from people who are out and about trying to get back to normal. Please listen carefully. This is not the time to get back to normal. We are all experiencing what we call quarantine fatigue, but I guarantee you this virus is not getting tired. We must double down on our efforts to flatten the curve.

Please wear face covering and keep your distance.

Importance of face coverings: They are one of the single most effective tools, along with distancing and hand washing and can halt or reverse the growth of COVID-19 in the state.

Hospital capacity: As case counts grow, there is an increase in hospitalizations statewide. Metro hospitals see more COVID-19 patients, especially Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. Capacity remains stable, but we monitor hospital resources. We have a plan to implement in-hospital surge plans and alternative care sites.

Tips for July 4: Staying home is always the safest way to protect yourself. If you are not feeling well, consider canceling you plans. If you leave, learn ahead of requirements or restrictions where you will visit. Use face covering. Wash hands.  Avoid large group gatherings. Limit gatherings with seniors and people with health conditions. Back home, have a low threshold for being tested.

Questions (Reporters did not have mics, so most of their questions were not audible.)

Lee: We are working with TSSAA to develop guidelines. I can’t answer. We are I the middle of developing guidelines. I suspect we will have a special session.

Piercey: There are lots of dates. If someone gets sick, after a couple of days they get tested, and it takes several days to hear back. Labs are getting backed up on volume. We are trying to increase capacity. We ran 25,000 tests today: from increased demand and backlog from the Sunday shutdown, that system is not designed to handle tens of thousands of tests per day. The patients who were tested have been notified. In Memphis and Nashville, we have not activated surge capacity. Memphis has leveled off in the past few days.

Lee: The bust will be the Capital Commission’s decision. I will make comments to them next week. I have not seen the bill yet and have not decided whether to sign it. We haven’t made that decision yet because we haven’t gotten the amendment to the bill yet.

Lee: Localities have asked if they have authority to have a mask mandate. It’s a legal question. We will determine in next few days.

Piercey: We have to learn to live with this. The governor mentioned a vaccine. Vaccine and herd immunity go hand in hand. Until 70 percent of the population has been infected or we have a vaccine, we have to learn to live with this virus. We don’t want 70 percent to be infected. Balance health and economy. Individual economic prosperity is an integral part of health. When I said we shouldn’t go back to normal, you saw people packed into graduations or bars like it was a year ago. It’s a way to show we care about our neighbors.

Piercey: We don’t think there is one size fits all, but allow for this in certain areas. Not every county is in the same position economically or with the virus. Whenever they want to do this, we want to allow.

Lee: We are developing strategies in areas with challenges. A county with increasing cases…. Unified Command and the Health Department are talking with locals about tracing, public service announcements. That is our hot spot strategy.

Piercey: I’m serious about what I said today, because the key message here is not chasing after hot spots. There is a robust plan to increase testing, engage community leaders, locate vulnerable populations, but that’s too late. We have to take a step back and focus on primary prevention, which keeps people from getting it in the first place. Keep your distance. Wash your hands. Most of the spread is person to person. As cases grow, the need for contact tracers grows.

Lee: My approach is more targeted to … as local counties request clarity on the authority they have to put in place stricter mask standards. That is the direction we are looking at.

Lee: There are many requests from local governments, some of whom have difficulties with meeting places, so we want them to continue to meet. Many are elderly. It forces them not to have choice. We are trying to provide for government meetings to continue with safety.

Lee: I cannot recall how much has been spent on COVID-19 testing. We don’t know what the future holds. We are preparing and allocating spending reserves. Those numbers are public.

A reporter asked how worried Tennesseans should be. Lee said: They should be concerned. We have a significant public health crisis. It is present. There are people dying every day in our state. We lose Tennesseans every day to COVID-19. Person to person contact. When we have people dying in this state, we should be worried about it. We’ve watched caseloads climb. What we need to remember is we mitigated it before with behavior, we can mitigate it again with behavior. If you wear a mask and keep your distance, you should not be worried.

Suicide prevention

Also on Wednesday, the state announced a partnership with The Jason Foundation Inc., a national advocate in preventing suicides. The campaign is called “Tennessee Won’t Be Silent.” More information is at tn-wontbesilent.com.

During a virtual conference Wednesday, Lee said that the pandemic and the “economic collapse” in the nation “can have some impact in significant ways in mental health.”

Lee said he became aware of The Jason Foundation 18 years ago when his daughter attempted suicide and he was desperate to find resources. He found Jason Flatt, the organization’s founder, who helped him find resources.

State Mental Health Commissioner Marie Williams said three Tennesseans die each day from suicide.

University of Tennessee at Knoxville Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer is The Jason Foundation’s national spokesman, a role he has held for 22 years. He spoke about the pressures that youths face, whether at home, in relationships, at school or competing in sports.

“I have always been concerned about our young people and their well-being,” Fulmer said. “We have to pay attention.”

According to a state press release, the campaign will try to build awareness and provide resources about suicide. It will start with education to support first responders, who the state said are more likely to die by suicide than on duty.

Capitol Commission

Lee announced the State Capitol Commission will convene on Thursday. He also announced the reappointment of Howard Gentry to the commission as the Middle Tennessee citizen member.

“Howard Gentry has been a valued member of the Capitol Commission and is a recognized leader in Nashville,” said Gov. Lee. “I’m proud to reappoint him to this position and thank him for his continued service to our state.”

Gentry was appointed to the commission in 2017 under Gov. Bill Haslam. He currently serves as the Criminal Court Clerk of Davidson County in the Twentieth Judicial District. A Nashville native, Gentry was elected three times to countywide public office. He was a Metro Council member-at-large before being elected Metro Nashville-Davidson County’s first black vice mayor in 1999.

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