Despite Tennessee’s rising number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths, including hot spots in places such as Wilson County, Gov. Bill Lee is showing little inclination to dial things back and reimpose any of the pandemic-era restrictions that he lifted starting May 1 to restart the state’s economy.
At a news conference last week at which he highlighted figures showing an uptick in tax collections as signs of a resurging economy, Lee told reporters that he by no means considers the coronavirus threat over.
“There is a genuine understanding that COVID-19 is a serious public health crisis for our state, and we take it seriously every single day,” he said in response to a question, later adding, “We are encouraged that we have one of the lowest death rates per capita in the country, but every single death is a very serious issue for me.”
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto declared a state of emergency June 24 because of the surge in COVID-19 cases locally. He urged residents to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing.
The state’s response has been to send a National Guard team to the Wilson County Health Department to provide drive-through testing.
“The drive-through option will remain in place for as long as needed in Wilson County,” said Dean Flener, the Governor’s Unified Command spokesman in an email.
On Friday, he said that the guard’s drive-through testing would move from the health department to the Wilson County Fairgrounds in Lebanon on Monday and be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“The increase in testing capacity allows for us to have a better clinical understanding of what COVID-19 is doing in the community,” Flener said.
With more testing comes more identification of those with the disease, and that leads to better contact tracing, which allows those infected or at-risk of being isolated, he said.
As of Sunday, according to figures, Wilson County had 725 COVID-19 cases, up from 625 on June 22. Deaths remained at 16. Statewide, there were 40,172 cases and 584 deaths, as of Sunday.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, who also appeared at Lee’s news conference, announced that 50% of reported cases in Tennessee are now coming from an “unknown source half of all infections that people don’t know where they got infected. Now that’s not surprising, because as people are moving about in the community they come into contact with people that are sick that they’re unaware of.”
The governor said, “I take it very seriously with the challenges we’re facing with this pandemic, and we’ll continue to do so going forward.”
In a series of executive orders beginning March 20, Lee sought to throw a wet blanket on the coronavirus’ spread with school closures followed by a “safer at home” directive and, on April 1, an order for “nonessential” businesses to close.
The governor, who faced opposition from a group of elected Republican district attorneys, among others, later began relaxing the order with the “safer at home” order ending April 30 and others involving tourist attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and large gatherings at sports events later lifted.
As part of his effort, Lee created the “Tennessee Pledge” in which businesses voluntarily agree to maintain safe practices such as cleanliness, social distancing practices and other measures.
Not all businesses are following that. Metro Nashville, which still operates under its own health guidelines, has cracked down on a number of restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Lee’s executive orders applied only to the 89 counties in which the state runs the county health department. It didn’t apply to six counties operating their own health departments
Asked what he considered the most critical measure in terms of gauging where the state stands on COVID-19, Lee said, “The most important data is death rate. The second most important data is the hospitalization numbers and our health care capacity. To me, those are the most important data. Certainly case count matters, the numbers of contact tracers, what age folks are getting this, duration. There’s a lot of data and none of it is not important. But some of them are the most important in my view.”
Asked if there was a particular data point that would lead him to reimpose stricter guidelines, Lee noted, “I’ve always said nothing’s off the table, but I actually think there are a lot of levers that would happen with regard to hospitalization, for example, long before you started other measures.”
Traci Pope, community relations director for Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital, said this week the local facility has plenty of capacity. As of Friday morning there were four COVID-19 patients at the hospital, she said in an email.
“We’re in a really different place in this pandemic than we were four months ago,” Lee said. “People know and have personal responsibility for whether or not they go to a bar or whether or not they go to an event. Or whether or not they wear a mask. Or whether or not they wash their hands. There’s personal responsibility and now we all know as a society what causes this, how it’s spread and how we can protect ourselves from it.
“So,” he added, “that changes the responsibilities that government has to provide safeguards.”
Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, took issue with aspects of Lee’s approach.
“It seems like we have a lot of people in denial about the reality that this pandemic is still with us and very much a threat,” Yarbro said during a teleconference call with other legislative Democratic leaders on Wednesday. He said Lee is spending too much time “following the lead of the White House.
“Choosing between the economy and health care, I think that’s a false choice,” Yarbro said as he went on to point to successes in other states that are experiencing less sickness and less death proprtionately than Tennessee. “We need to be focused like a laser on this health issue.”