Gov. Lee opens way for Tennessee National Guard members to work in overburdened hospitals

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Members of the Tennessee National Guard stand outside the East Lake Courts Community Center where free COVID-19 testing was being offered to residents of East Lake Courts on Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's coronavirus surge and its threat to overwhelm hospitals has spurred Gov. Bill Lee to sign a new emergency order granting top officials authority to send trained National Guard members to hospitals to work as nurses, screen patients for COVID-19 and operate ambulances.

The Republican governor's Executive Order 68 says it allows the state to "reduce system capacity strain resulting from COVID-19." Only guardsmen with "appropriate training or skills" would be sent, and that hinges on approval by Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, the adjutant general, and state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

Lee's action comes as Tennessee continues to break previous COVID-19 records. Two Southeast Tennessee cities - Athens and Cleveland - are now ranked No. 1 and No. 9 respectively by The New York Times as emerging hot spots, measured by week-to-week population-adjusted change in new cases of the coronavirus.