White House COVID-19 adviser Birx warns Tennessee at 'inflection point' on virus' spread, urges all counties to mandate masks

White House coronavirus response director Deborah Birx speaks with reporters in Nashville, Tennessee, on Monday. Photo by Andy Sher/Times Free Press

NASHVILLE -With Tennessee coronavirus positivity rates now hitting 10%, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warned Monday the state is at an "inflection point" and urged all 95 county mayors to mandate residents wear protective masks, close bars and implement social distancing to dampen the spread of the virus.

"Tennessee is at that inflection point," Birx told reporters after several hours of meetings with Gov. Bill Lee and other officials.

Lee has declined to mandate mask usage statewide, instead empowering county mayors to do so if they choose. The governor last week launched what he says is a multimillion-dollar public service announcement campaign with television, radio and digital ads encouraging people to wear face coverings.

Birx said that while she spoke to the governor about a statewide mandate, her purpose in speaking with Lee, a Republican, and Nashville Mayor John Cooper, a Democrat, and other officials was to emphasize among other things that Tennessee is now in the "red zone" category in terms of coronavirus infections increasing.

"What does that mean, they were 10% test positivity, they are now over 10% positivity, and the No. 1 bullet is mandate masks, close your bars and have social distancing. Tell every Tennessean to not socially gather with more than 10 people, to not socially gather even with your relatives if they've been elsewhere because of the chances of spreading this virus."

She said 100 percent of Tennessee counties should mandate masks to fend off the spread of the potentially deadly COVID-19. She estimated county mask mandates at 65 to 70 percent so far.

Hamilton County imposed a mask-in-public mandate earlier this month, although more rural counties in Southeast Tennessee have not followed suit.

Birx, one of the White House's top advisers on the pandemic, said she hopes President Donald Trump's recent call for people to wear masks gets through to his fans in Tennessee.

"I hope if they're a Donald Trump supporter and live in rural Tennessee and they heard him say masks are important, I hope they're listening to that," she said.

Wearing masks is "the power that we have in our hands" to battle virus spread, Birx said.

With Tennessee schools preparing to reopen - or try to reopen with either in-person classes or via online teaching - Birx said case numbers here need to go down.

"Every school district has to understand public health," she said. "If you can protect the students, the teachers, the families and those with co-morbidities, when you're in that situation where your caseload is dropping, your test positivity is falling, that is a situation that we would like to see. Because what's important to us is the safety of the children, the parents and the teachers."

Speaking with reporters after Birx's remarks, Lee said he is hoping the public service announcement campaign featuring famous Tennesseans on mask use gets through. He said he has visited counties with mask mandates where residents still aren't wearing them.

"People wear masks because they believe there is a reason to do so," the governor said. "I believe they will increasingly understand that as their local officials continue to advocate for it" along with health officials.

Asked about criticism from some in the health community that he is concerned about the politics of mask requirements - and if he would consider mandates if his current approach doesn't work - Lee responded, "I've said from the very beginning of this pandemic that nothing's off the table.

"I happen to believe that statewide mandates are not the best strategy, they're not the best approach and they don't effectively bring about the wearing of masks as well as other strategies," Lee said. "If I did so, I'd do it. But I don't believe so."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.