Gov. Lee thanks President Trump at White House event highlighting federal coronavirus aid for seniors

Gov. Bill Lee speaks during a press conference at Wilson Air Center on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee thanked President Donald Trump for his provision of aid to Tennessee during the coronavirus pandemic during a White House event on Thursday, saying it boosted assistance for seniors.

"As we work to make our contribution to fighting COVID-19 we can do so because of the work that you're doing and the way that you're supporting what we're doing," the Republican governor told the president.

Lee told Trump that "you've asked states to commit to a goal of testing 2% of their population, and in April 2% of Tenneseans were tested. And we have tested over 175,000 to date.

"But," Lee added, as "we look to May to build upon, we're actually strengthening a commitment, particularly to the elderly, the most vulnerable of our citizens, especially those in our nursing homes."

The governor's White House trip came a day after Lee announced a major effort to begin mass coronavirus testing in the next several weeks involving some 60,000 to 70,000 residents living in an estimated 700 Tennessee nursing homes, assisted care facilities and similar residential facilities housing elderly and vulnerable people.

Lee's plan for massive testing includes testing an estimated 70,000 facility workers ranging from medical staff to janitors. It was prompted by deadly outbreaks of COVID-19 cases in two Tennessee nursing homes, the latest being at the Life Care Center in Athens, north of Chattanooga. Two people had died there as of early Wednesday evening.

Trump used the briefing to highlight his administration's response on protecting America's seniors from the virus that has resulted in a disproportionate share of deaths among that population.

When introducing Lee earlier, Trump called him a "governor who I happen to like a lot. And he's done a fantastic job in a fantastic state that I happen to like a lot, and it's called Tennessee. For some reason they like me," he said smiling.

Trump handily won Tennessee in both his 2016 GOP presidential primary and the general election.

Lee thanked the president and his team, noting there are "many in this room that we have worked with. You are guiding America through a tremendous crisis and you're doing it incredibly well. ... And we are grateful in Tennessee for the partnership between the federal government and states like ours."

While noting Tennessee has tested about 175,000 people for the virus already, Lee said the state is looking to build upon that in May by "strengthening a commitment, particularly to the elderly, the most vulnerable of our citizens, especially those in nursing homes.

"You know, there's a scripture that describes being hard pressed on every side - but not crushed. And that's where we are in Tennessee," the governor said. "I think that's where we are in the nation. But the elderly are most hard pressed in this setting and especially those who are in long-term facilities. And they need our help."

Trump later cited a list of federal assistance his administration is sending into states such as Tennessee, including medical equipment and resources for the Tennessee National Guard. The guard is playing a heavy role in Lee's efforts to accelerate testing.

The president also announced a new coronavirus commission on nursing home safety that will include leading physicians, scientists and advocates for the elderly as well as family members of seniors and state and local officials.

"My administration will never waiver in its commitment to America's seniors," said Trump, who earlier quipped some people might see him as a senior. The federal government "won't fail" seniors, the president vowed.

With regard to senior care facilities in Tennessee, 21 residents at the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing north of Nashville died as after a COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March.

A total of 162 people in senior care facilities had tested positive for the virus, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Latest figures for nursing homes show 44 people had died and 478 had tested positive for coronavirus.

There are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Tennesseans living in long-term care facilities, where they are attended by some 70,000 staff ranging from health care professionals to janitors, according to the governor's office and state health officials.

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