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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday afternoon the state is preparing for a "surge" of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and seeking to bring "thousands" of additional hospital beds online as well as staffing and supplies to prepare for it in the next 3 1/2 weeks.

Lee said during his daily briefing the state's worst-case scenario shows an estimated 7,000 more beds will be needed in the next 3 1/2 weeks as COVID-19 spreads across the state. He said current computer modeling shows peak numbers around April 19 or April 20.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scouting local convention centers, hotels and college campuses, while hospitals are bringing on unused bed space.

Tennessee is also putting out urgent calls to health care workers who have been furloughed or displaced that they are needed and will shortly have a website for them to contact the state, Lee said.

It comes with the state's official count of persons who have tested positive for the potentially deadly virus at 2,683, in including 50 in Hamilton County. There have been 24 official COVID-19 related deaths and 200 people are hospitalized. Another 137 people have recovered from the viral pandemic.

The tally evidently doesn't include Wednesday's reported death of a child in Hamilton County.

Lee also said the pace of testing has picked up considerably in the state and he expects it to accelerate further. He and state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey also urged health care workers to use state labs for testing, because their turnaround time right now is quicker than samples sent to private labs that are often out of state.

The Republican also continued to defend his "safer at home" policy, which critical experts and front-line physicians in Middle Tennessee openly charge won't do enough to encourage residents to stay home in order to flatten the virus' curve. Lee said it is adequate.

Lee also told reporters the state is now spending $45 million to purchase an 18 million more pieces of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers and patients at a cost of $45 million. Every county in the state has received PPE, the governor said.

But Lee said that based on various models, Tennessee at this point has "less [PPE] items than we anticipated than at the height of the surge," which suggests supplies will be short of the demand for patients.

Regarding the hunt for more beds for the surge, Lee said "We're going to need thousands in the next few weeks as the surge hits."

And he urged idled health care workers to contact the state.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said "testing at an unprecedented rate" with 32,452 conducted so far amid a testing ramp up that Lee lauded. Piercey also said 32% of the state's in-patient hospital beds are available at this point. So are 39% of Intensive Care Unit beds as well as 69% of ventilators.

But Piercey said more of all are needed to address with the surge's peak. The commissioner said officials are putting together a plan "on financial assistance for rural hospitals to bring on capacity for each of those as well."

The state is already looking at shuttered hospitals in rural areas -- Tennessee has a large number -- and a number of other rural facilities have dramatically cut back on bed space in recent years amid shortfalls in funding.

Earlier Wednesday, Lee and Stewart McWhorter, the governor's former state finance commissioner and how head of the Lee's recently created "Unified Command" group, briefed Tennessee lawmakers on the current situation and plans.

Among other things, the governor said the Trump administration has approved the state's Medicaid waiver request it will be implemented immediately. It will to give Lee more flexibility in bringing new enrollees onto TennCare, the state's health insurance for low-income pregnant women, single mothers and their children, some disabled Tennesseans and the elderly.

The Medicaid waiver suspends pre-admission screenings and annual resident reviews -- if necessary -- in nursing facilities to facilitate hospital discharge of patients needing long-term care.

It also waives site visits to temporarily enroll a health care provider into TennCare permits providers located out-of-state to provide care to a TennCare enrollee and be reimbursed for that service.

Another provision streamlines provider enrollment requirements for providers who are not current TennCare providers but who may be needed to provide care during the emergency. And it also postpones deadlines for revalidation of providers located in the state or are otherwise directly impacted by the emergency.

Lawmakers were also told that self-employed Tennesseans who now find themselves out of work can apply for unemployment. And the Department of Labor is bringing 200 persons on to assist with the current blitz of unemployment requests and yet more filings expected.

McWhorter also said that if necessary, the state is willing to use some of an emergency $150 million fund the governor and lawmakers created in the state's budget for  health and safety.

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

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