Tennessee Gov. Lee creates COVID-19 Unified Command to address health, economic responses to pandemic

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, answers questions concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Lee has asked all schools in Tennessee to close by the end of the week due to coronavirus spreading across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

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NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Monday he is establishing a "COVID-19 Unified Command" to streamline coordination among health and emergency officials to combat what he called "not only a health crisis but an economic crisis."

"This team will be tasked with finding innovative, creative solutions for [coronavirus] testing, medical supplies, hospital capacity," the Republican governor told reporters in an afternoon teleconference briefing.

At the same time, Lee announced he has signed a new directive, Executive Order 18, that directs dentists, physicians and other providers to suspend most non-emergency surgeries.

The purpose is to preserve remaining medical supplies. The order urges, but does not mandate, that those supplies be donated to state government officials to help front-line medical workers combat the virus.

Executive Order 18 was issued amid concerns by physicians and others saying they are running out of personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, eye-protection shields, Tyvek suits, gloves, gowns and similar equipment to protect them from getting infected themselves.

Lee said the supplies should be taken to the nearest Tennessee National Guard Armory. They then be distributed by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

The governor told reporters he is doing what he can to boost a variety of efforts, noting there have been several "very important strategic decisions we have made to make sure we're doing everything we can innovatively and creatively to get the best results."

Lee said he has tasked his finance commissioner Stuart McWhorter to "streamline" coordination across the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Military.

"The COVID-19 pandemic challenges every aspect of traditional government response in a crisis," Lee said. "I have appointed the Unified Command to effectively change the way we attack COVID-19 in Tennessee as we work to simultaneously address health, economic and supply crises."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee issues new order banning social gatherings of more than 10; restaurants and bars limited to take-out service)

McWhorter is leaving the Finance Department to head the Unified Command. He appointed retired Brig. Gen. Scott Brower to serve as the operations's chief of staff.

Lee said one immediate thing the group is working on is to boost the supply of masks, gowns and face shields to protect front-line physicians, nurses and other medical personnel dealing with hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Latest figures show 608 Tennesseans have tested positive for the virus. And two people have died in the Nashville area from COVID-19 complications. A group of Middle Tennessee physicians said Sunday that more medical supplies are badly needed and also urged Lee to issue a stay-at-home order, which Lee has declined to do.

Among other things, Lee said, eight higher education institutions, including four community colleges, are working in areas such as using 3-D printing technology to provide parts for the face shields.

He said the state has also received an additional 430 specialized suits for health care workers.

"This is a time for innovation, and there is no one better than Tennesseans who can innovate who can step up to the plate to address this," Lee said. "We will get through this but we want to get through it like Tennesseans."

He said "every Tennessean should wake up and take personal responsibility for saving the lives of their fellow Tennesseans."

Lee said he expects he will make a decision later this week on how long to extend school closures in the state, and he noted in response to questions that he is not ruling out the possibility the remainder of the school year could be scrapped.

He said he has spoken with groups of governors as well as Tennessee mayors in various conference calls in recent days.

As for issuing an order for most Tennesseans to remain in place, which a number of physicians have asked him to do, Lee said, "for me it's about the right time for the right decision in the right place," adding that for every state, as well as Tennessee city or county, "no one size fits all."

McWhorter said Gen. Brower's "special forces background and previous service as the Acting Senior Commander for the 101st Airborne Division has enabled him to pull leaders together and troubleshoot quickly in a crisis. Gov. Lee has urged our team to challenge every barrier, and assembling this team is the first step."

The COVID-19 Unified Command also includes:

- TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan

- Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey

- Tennessee Department of Military Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes, who is adjutant general.

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