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NASHVILLE — Tennessee physician and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Thursday joined the effort to persuade Gov. Bill Lee to issue a strict "stay-at-home" order to help quell the rising number of coronavirus pandemic cases here.

Frist is a heart transplant surgeon and Republican who served two terms in the U.S. Senate and as majority leader from 2003 to 2007.

He becomes the most prominent figure to date to join a group of Middle Tennessee physicians who along with some 2,000 doctors from across the state have urged Lee through a petition to implement stricter orders to tamp down on the spread of COVID-19.

Frist did not appear in the video conferencing call hosted by the group of Middle Tennessee physicians who have been urging Lee for more than a week to take stronger actions in imposing requirements on Tennesseans to remain at home. But as the physicians spoke, Frist's name appeared one letter at a time on the group's online petitition until his full name was shown.

For weeks, the former majority leader has been active on his podcast and via Twitter in addressing coronavirus.

Lee issued a "safer at home" executive order Monday that urged Tennesseans to remain home — without directing them to do so — except to pursue vital errands like shopping for food or picking up prescriptions at a pharmacy. Many states have gone further, even those led by Lee's fellow Republicans.

Proponents of Lee imposing stronger restrictions spent much of Thursday morning sending out emails to journalists that someone "famous" would be publicly joining that effort.

Frist fits the bill. His father, Thomas Frist Sr., co-founded Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America.

Frist went into medicine, became a heart transplant surgeon and wrote a book about his experience before running successfully in 1994, ousting then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser.

Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County doctor who has been a key figure in the effort to pressure Lee to do more, said he thinks a respected Republican like Frist could be what propels the governor to action. If it doesn't, Milstone said, he is "running out of ideas."

"Bill has been a politician," Milstone said. "He has been a statesman. He was a heart and lung transplant physician. He's a father. There is no one higher in my mind that can sway Gov. Lee other than Bill Frist adding his name to our voice."

Frist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Contact Andy Sher at asher @timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. F0llow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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