Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee speaks during the 2020 Atlas Cross Sport reveal at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — With Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear calling on residents in his state to avoid traveling to Tennessee because of differences in their respective COVID-19 responses, Gov. Bill Lee is pointing to what he says is the Volunteer State's more aggressive virus testing.

"I'm really focused on Tennessee and how it is that we test aggressively here, that we address the issues that are most important to Tennesseans," Lee, a Republican, told reporters Tuesday when initially asked about Democrat Beshear's recent statements on Tennessee.

In response to a later, more direct question on Beshear, Lee said, "We test our citizens three times more per capita than the state of Kentucky."

Kentucky is not the only government that's taking issue with Tennessee's coronavirus response. On Friday, officials in Graham County, North Carolina, closed the county's border to traffic from Monroe and Blount counties in Tennessee.

Last week, Beshear was openly critical of Tennessee's handling of the virus, telling reporters that if "you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery if it is closer," according to news accounts.

"I cannot control that Tennessee has not taken the steps that we have," said Beshear, who on Monday issued an executive order directing residents "not to travel" to other states except when necessary.

Asked Tuesday if he had spoken with Beshear, Lee said, "I talk to governors almost every day in an attempt to work together" but he had not specifically spoken with Beshear.

Lee said he was not criticizing Kentucky, adding, "I'm just saying we know a whole lot more about our population because we're testing so readily in this state."

Lee called the Volunteer State's situation "very different from every other state" with challenges that are "unique and different. I would be happy to offer any support or advice or help that we might be able to give [Beshear], but I'm focused on Tennessee."

As of Tuesday, 2,239 Tennesseans had tested positive for the coronavirus among its population of 6.8 million, or about 33 cases per 100,000 people. That compares to 594 cases in Kentucky, or 13 per 100,000 people in Kentucky's population of 4.5 million people.

For deaths, Tennessee has had 23 as of Tuesday, or 3.4 for every million residents, compared to 17 deaths, or 3.8 for every million Kentucky residents.

Those statistics might well support what Lee is saying, that Tennessee is finding more cases by doing more testing. Also, Kentucky's situation may be somewhat more severe than Tennessee's on a per-capita basis, based on the slightly higher death rate.

Beshear's executive order doesn't single Tennessee out specifically but says Kentuckians "are instructed not to travel into any other state" except when required by employment, to obtain groceries, medicine or other necessary supplies, to seek or obtain care by a licensed health care provider, to provide care for "vulnerable persons" or under a court order.

Earlier this week, Lee issued two new executive orders, with one closing down what the state now deems as non-essential businesses in an effort to tamp down the virus' spread. That list includes barbers, hair and nail salons. Some physicians have panned it as inadequate.

Noting his own experience has been that "you get quite a bit of input that is quite varying across the board," Lee said he seeks to account for sometimes conflicting information, adding "we've tried to determine the right time" to have the "right impact" on the coronavirus curve.

"That's what we're trying to do is flatten the curve," he said.

Lee also emphasized Tennessee's response will continue to evolve as officials learn more.

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