GOP Governor Bill Lee paid a visit to Memphis Friday, where he provided a status report on the coronavirus pandemic in Tennessee and a summary of his administrative actions. Lee's visit came as he garnered increasing criticism from the state's Democratic minority in the now-suspended General Assembly.
Governor Lee at Memphis Airport press briefing.
Some measure of the rapid spread and virulence
of the Covid-19 virus lay in the fact that the Democratic caucus members, in an open letter they circulated on Wednesday, wrote ominously of the “more than 700 cases” in the state, while Governor Lee and his state Health Commissioner, Lisa Piercey, used the figure of 1,203 to denote the number of state cases as of the time they spoke to reporters in an afternoon press conference at Memphis International Airport. (The rest of the statistical report, as of then: 103 hospitaliations, and six deaths.)
The Democratic legislators had been critical of Lee for not declaring a statewide “safer at home” order, allowing there to be “a patchwork or orders constructed by municipal governments.” Lee took what seemed to be at least indirect note of the criticism at the Friday press conference.
In a manner somewhat evocative of President Trump’s emphasis on economic factors, Lee said, “there's a great degree of data that shows that healthcare is impacted in a negative way when people lose their jobs. There's a reason why the majority of states do not have statewide stay at home orders.” He said, “What we're doing in Tennessee, is have the right approach, the right decisions, the right time, the right place.” The reality in Tennessee, he said, was that “we are to a great degree shut down. ... Every major population center has a stay-home order. The most populous counties in our state are all covered by stay-home orders, every restaurant dining room in the state, every bar, every school in Tennessee.”
In their letter, the Democrats charged that “In Tennessee, testing remains limited and is provided by a patchwork of often substandard options.” Lee and Piercey talked up several local testing options on Friday. The Governor noted that a testing site had opened that very day at Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds, and Piercey pointed out that the various offices of the Christ Community Health Center in Memphis were providing testing.
Said the governor: ”There's a lot of evidence that the cities in other countries and the countries themselves that have the greatest level of testing during this pandemic, those countries had the best outcomes with regard to flattening the curve. So testing is incredibly important.”
Called upon to account for emergency measures under way in Tennessee, state Adjutant General Jeff Holmes counted some 250 call-ups of National Guard members in the state. “We are leaning heavily on our medical professions, that's combat medics, nurses, nurse practitioners, all the medical branches including portions of the 164th Air Wing here in Memphis. That's going to be our heavy forward course.”
Piercey and Lee both warned of the fact that, as Lee noted, those “40 and younger tend to be, in this state, the largest percentage of those who test positive.” He continued: “It's true young people tend to have less negative impacts as a result of this virus. The most vulnerable population are the elderly. And sometimes that can tend to create a mindset among the younger component of our population. That it just doesn't matter that much to them because if they get sick, they're probably not going to have anything but modest symptoms."
Lee called that mindset “incredibly dangerous” in that “those that are young, those that do test positive ... spread it to folks in the community ... And the vulnerable will be infected as a result.”
The legislators’ letter asked for action on the issue of unemployment insurance. Lee noted that the omnibus stimulus passed by Congress (and at that point about to be signed by the President) on Friday, contained reassurances on that score.
The Democrats’ letter asked as well for additional medical personnel and expanded medical facilities. Though the letter did not dwell at length on the fact that the Tennessee General Assembly has never approved Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, state Democratic chair Mary Mancini and House Democratic caucus vice chair Antonio Parkinson of Memphis raised the issue as an imperative on Thursday in the first of what are proposed to be weekly online interactive chats.
In essence, the Democrats called for ”clear guidance and a statewide plan” and made it clear that they thought Lee had not provided one. For his part, the governor proclaimed that state government, along with Tennesseans at large, “have taken the steps necessary to provide for the safety of citizens and we're doing a lot. We're doing a lot in this state. And we're encouraged by the outcomes already.”