This is a summary of Gov. Bill Lee’s Nov. 24 press conference.
Lee mentioned that his administration is about to start rolling out previews of next year’s legislative agendas in the coming weeks.
The first one deals with Tennessee National Guard members who have been deployed. The Reemployment Act from the Department of the Military will provide reemployment protections.
Our soldiers and our airmen should not fear losing their jobs after a deployment. We’re grateful for their service.
Dr. Wendy Long, Tennessee Hospital Association:
She spoke about collaborations to fight COVID. Hospital workers have put their safety on the line to serve patients. We set new records every day for numbers of patients hospitalized for the virus.
There has been a 2.5-fold increase in numbers of patients. They are 34 percent of ICU patients.
July: COVID positive patients were 19 percent of ICU patients and six percent of floor bed patients.
Hospitals are protecting other services by converting other units to ICU beds, doubling patient rooms, increasing nurse ratios and more. Hospital capacity has always been a concern. Many hospitals have little to no beds and are diverting patients. This affects COVID and other patients including heart attacks and trauma.
Staff are exhausted. Over 4,300 Tennesseans have died from COVID.
We talk about healthcare workers being on the front line, but hospitals are the last line of defense. Wear a mask and social distance. Masking makes a difference.
We ask you consider ways to celebrate the holiday safely by limiting sizes of gatherings and masking people and doing virtual celebrations.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee Department of Health:
We tested over 16,000 Tennesseans at special testing sites yesterday. The results will start coming in Wednesday.
Expanded testing is another tool people can use to inform themselves for the holidays. Please have a low threshold for getting tested. We will do another expanded testing on Monday.
We are getting new information about vaccines. We are prepared to receive and distribute the vaccine.
We knew Pfizer will likely be the candidate we get first. Moderna is next; it will likely be one week after Pfizer.
Dec. 14-15 or so is when we expect to get it. The first recipients will be Phase One-A: healthcare workers and first responders, such as ERs and ICUs, those doing mass testing events, first responders who help people without knowing if they are sick.
We do not know how many doses we will get. Our plan is online but is a draft.
This is the one ray of hope that we have got.
Please be careful when you are home. Many cases are coming from household contacts. If you can avoid a gathering, you should consider that. Space people around and wear masks when you are not eating. Finally, happy Thanksgiving.
Q: Are you looking for healthcare workers to help such as retired healthcare workers?
Long: We are interested in any volunteers who want to help in hospitals. Nurses, respiratory therapists are most in need, but any help is appreciated.
Q: What work would they do?
Long: It would depend on the skills of the volunteers.
Q: How many people are coming back?
Long: I do not have that number.
Lee: We did an executive order to give flexibility.
Q: Any more thoughts on a mask mandate?
Lee: Masks are an incredibly important part of mitigation. Masks and mandates are two separate things. Granting authority to local officials is important. Dr. Birx said this is appropriate. Seventy percent of residents are under a mask requirement. Eighty percent say they wear a mask most or all of the time, per a Carnegie Melon study.
Q: What about rural counties? I’ve seen them not wear them.
Lee: We need every Tennessean to take personal responsibility.
Q: The White House report gave other recommendations.
Lee: We believe this pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s lives and jobs. There is a balance we must carry to protect both. They also say states should make their own decisions.
Question on former Commerce Commissioner Hodgen Mainda.
Lee: He no longer works for our administration. Law allows state workers, if they have no conflict, to have different streams of income. You will have to ask him.
Q: Were you aware?
Lee: I believe it was in his disclosure statements when he came on board.
Q: His free housing…seems odd. Was supposed to be temporary but it was a year.
Lee: It is allowable under statue.
Q: So, you are ok with it?
Lee: He no longer works for us.
Q: He was living rent free.
Lee: We will follow employment law.
Q: That allows them to do that?
Lee: We need to be certain and we will be that every employee is employed under current statute.
Q: You urged people to rethink Thanksgiving. What about Black Friday?
Lee: People … we are living our lives. We are making decisions. I urge people to make wise decisions every day.
Q: The president said he will allow Joe Biden to receive transition funds. Do you consider Biden president?
Lee: The Department of ... there is a process that is playing out. We will watch that play out.
Q: So you are not ready to acknowledge?
Lee; When the process is complete….
Q: When school districts after Thanksgiving are closing not due to transmission but staffing. Do you have any recommendations?
Lee: Districts have worked hard. Teachers have worked hard. I am appreciative. Kids do better in person than online. They have decisions to make on their own.
Penny Schwinn, education commissioner: We talk to districts twice a week. We desire to keep buildings open as long as possible. We see superintendents are working with their teams to limit the spread and are seeing stronger quarantine procedures.
Q: Some are calling for loosening restrictions for subs.
Schwinn: We have been encouraged by districts’ creativity like people who have been screened and people who are retried teachers or are scientists. Some districts are having college students do tutoring.
Q: What would you say to Nashville and Shelby County about closing buildings?
Schwinn: We will support all our districts.
Q: UT adopted a rule to allow a COVID vaccination requirement for students once it is available. Do you favor that and do you see a COVID requirement at the K-12 level for students or staff?
Lee: UT makes that decision on their own. We support local decision-making. I do not foresee mandates for districts.
Q: What is your thought on legislation to create exemptions for COVID vaccines?
Lee: I am not sure what bill this is, but vaccines will be very important for us in this state to curb the spread. Vaccines are a choice and people in this state will have a choice.
Q: Do you have a rough estimate how many vaccines we will get?
Piercey: I am hesitant to give a number because it fluctuates. 80,000 to 100,000 doses, and each person gets two. About freezers, we get asked about ultracold. Our state has a wide geography; it does not make sense to put stuff in a central freezer. We will use Pfizer’s thermal shipper, a 2-by-2-foot cube with a box of 975 vials, which is packed on dry ice.
Q: A group of hospitals today warned about rising numbers and capacity.
Lee: We have a very serious pandemic. The reason I had Dr. Long here is because we want Tennesseans to know the urgency, we ask them to take personal responsibility until we get a vaccine. It is very serious. The state has pursued in the past few weeks ways to partner with hospitals to increase capacity.
Q: Is there a point you say this is not working?
Lee: There are no trigger points. We have alternative care sites.
Q: Are the alternative care sites ready to go?
Lee: Yes. There are 500 beds. Staffing is the issue.
Lee: Memphis and Nashville.
Q: When will everyone get the vaccine?
Piercey: We will do it as quickly as the supply allows. There are many phases, all based on risk. For timeline, I think Phase One and maybe Two in the winter and early spring. The rest will be spring-summer and then late spring-early summer, maybe July-August for widespread availability.
Q: For staffing, will we allow COVID-positive people to treat patients, and will we give people incentives to leave retirement?
Lee: Incentives is like saying we would love you to come back if you are a trained healthcare worker. For COVID workers returning, that is a decision for healthcare providers; I am not aware of that being discussed.
Piercey: COVID-positive staff is allowable by the CDC. It is starting to be discussed by industry, but we have not made any recommendations.