Gov. Lee: Push on to test all 700 nursing Tennessee homes after COVID-19 outbreaks in Athens, Gallatin

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, center, visits a storm-damaged area Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tornadoes went through the area Sunday, April 12. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - With major outbreaks of coronavirus erupting now at an Athens nursing home as well as an earlier, even deadlier wave sweeping a Gallatin facility in late March, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced plans Wednesday to start mass testing all 700 or so long-term care facilities in Tennessee.

"In the next several weeks, the Unified Command Group is embarking on widespread testing of all long-term care facilities in Tennessee to help these facilities identify COVID-19 positive patients and staff even more quickly."

Noting that 70,000 Tennesseans reside in nursing homes, senior centers and other long-term facilities, Lee said that for "this initial push" the state is partnering with Murfreesboro-based National HealthCare Corporation to begin testing all 38 of its facilities here.

"We thank NHC as we work to protect this most vulnerable part of our population," Lee said during his Wednesday briefing on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We look forward to working with all long-term care facilities here in Tennessee."

The governor and state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the Unified Command Group entity he created to provide leadership and quick responses to hot spots will be providing the facilities with nasal swabs and personal protective gear, among other equipment.

Lee said the state wants to get the testing done in the next "several weeks," but didn't put a specific time stamp on getting the work accomplished.

Piercey said "we realize this is a huge undertaking with significant implications." She said NHC "has volunteered all 38" of its facilities to initiate the massive testing program.

"[N]ursing homes and long-term care facilities have an extraordinarily vulnerable population," Piercey told reporters during Gov. Bill Lee's daily briefing on the state's response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "And it's one that Unified Command and the governor and all of us talk about every single day."

Piercey said officials hope to announce new policies either Wednesday or later this week.

"It's something we're working day and night to increase our response to," she said. "And in the next day or two you will hear plans of how we intend to expand our testing and our monitoring across all long-term care facilities."

The coronavirus has hit hard at the Cleveland, Tennessee-based Life Care Centers Athens nursing home. Two people died as of Wednesday and 54 residents had tested positive, with about 37 others testing negative.

More than 20 elderly residents at the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing have died so far as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak that began in about mid-March.

Piercey said that as state officials "learn more about the science of this disease, it's really interesting that we found a lot of elderly folks can be positive and have a very long what we call pre-symptomatic period. They can test positive and look well for a long time."

Piercey said "the sooner we recognize those cases and we isolate and cohort those appropriately and take extra precautions, the better the outcomes will be and that's certainly our top priority."

The outbreak at the Life Care Center facility in Athens occurred at a facility operated by Cleveland, Tennessee-based Life Care. The company also owns and operates the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, which became an early flash point for the disease back in late February. Some three dozen persons at that facility have died, according to multiple news accounts.

Contact Andy Sher at Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.