Physicians urge Tennessee residents to stay apart, say state is not ready to reopen amid coronavirus

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Christy Botts, clinical manager at Physicians Services, put on protective equipment to swab someone for a COVID-19 test on March 29, 2020.

A group of more than 2,000 physicians in Tennessee is urging residents to stay physically distant to stop the spread of COVID-19 as the state moves to reopen its economy.

Since the coronavirus - which is five times more infectious than the flu - does not have a vaccine, the only way to stop the spread is to stay apart, said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pulmonary specialist treating COVID-19 patients in Williamson County.

"To my fellow Tennesseans, you're definitely hearing mixed messages about whether or not it's open and safe to reopen our economy and engage in business again. Let us be clear, it is not," Milstone said.

Some businesses, including restaurants, began reopening this week under an order from Lee. The governor's decision caught local officials, including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, by surprise. The city was originally going to remain under a shelter-in-place order but the governor's directive overrode much of the mayor's order.

As of Tuesday, more than 10,000 Tennessee residents had contracted the virus and nearly 200 have died. This week marked the largest single-day increase in cases since the virus was first detected in the state.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County's COVID-19 'death rate' is skewed by limited testing)

The state should not reopen businesses until there is expansive contact tracing, along with regular and routine testing for the virus, Milstone said. Test results need to come back within 24 hours and be available in rural counties as well as metropolitan areas, he said.

The physicians urged residents to stay away from restaurants unless people are staying six feet apart and staff members are wearing gloves and masks. Residents should avoid crowds of more than 10 people, too, they said.

"Ask your employers not to put the lives of you and the public at risk," Milstone said.

The physicians' conference call on Tuesday comes nearly a month after the same group pushed Lee to order residents to stay home rather than requesting them to do so. At the time, they described the governor's "safer at home" directive as "weak leadership."

A new model, released last week, from Vanderbilt University shows scenarios with the May 1 re-opening day and the possible changes in the rate of transmission of COVID-19. The current transmission rate in Tennessee is 1.0, meaning every person infected is spreading it to one other person. If the rate drops below 1.0, the epidemic is shrinking. If the rate goes above 1.0, it is growing.

According to the model, if the transmission rate stays at 1.0 while Tennessee reopens, the social distancing measures will not need to be reinstated. However, if the rate rises to 1.2 or 1.5, the state's hospital system will become overburdened in 74 or 46 days, respectively.

While it is unknown how the transmission rate will change with social distancing restrictions lifted, the Vanderbilt researchers noted re-opening businesses will bring people in closer contact with one another, which risks increasing the spread.

"The longer social distancing is continued, and the more transmission of the virus is reduced, the longer the economy could stay open before overburdening the state's hospitals and risking the health of all Tennesseans who might need care, not just those suffering from COVID-19," the researchers said in their report.

On Monday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its Tennessee model, projecting that statewide deaths from the virus could rise to more than 450 by Aug. 4.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.