Gov. Bill Lee speaks during the Tennessee Higher Education Commission session of the state budget hearings Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — With latest figures showing Tennessee has the highest number of new COVID-19 cases by population in the U.S. over the past week, a group of physicians on Friday said the state has now become the epicenter of the pandemic and accused Gov. Bill Lee of having abandoned the people he swore an oath to protect.

The charges come as numbers of new infections show nearly 1 out of every 100 Tennessee residents has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus within a seven-day period as of Thursday.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the past seven days as of Friday, Tennessee's average number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases per day was 135.6 per 100,000 people. Oklahoma and Rhode Island were the only other states over 100, at 110.6 and 108.7 new cases per day respectively per 100,000 residents.

In a blistering Zoom news conference on Friday, Tennessee physicians with the Protect My Care group, who for months have unsuccessfully pleaded with Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate and other requirements, charged that the Republican governor's refusal to do so amounts to a failure of leadership.

"Gov. Lee, we know a thing or two about oaths — we all took one at the beginning of our careers," said Dr. Jason Martin, a Middle Tennessee pulmonologist who treats COVID-19 patients. "You too, sir, took an oath and [in] abdicating your responsibility to protect the health and well-being of your people you have neglected that oath and abandoned the people you are elected to serve."

Doctors were especially incensed by Lee's remarks a day earlier at Vanderbilt University Medical Center as he and medical officials celebrated the arrival of the new Pfizer vaccine in Tennessee and the start of vaccinations to protect health care workers.

"We couldn't have imagined" the post-Thanksgiving surge of cases, he said.

More Info

Average daily cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in past seven days

1) Tennessee: 135.6

2) Oklahoma: 110.6

3) Rhode Island: 108.7

4) California: 98.6

5) Arizona: 94.6

Source: Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures as of 3 p.m. Thursday





Speaking on Friday, Dr. Aaron Milstone, another Middle Tennessee pulmonologist, retorted, "We did. And we've been warning you every day for the last 165 days. As physicians, we each took an oath to protect our patients. Much like your oath to lead and protect our state."

Milstone also took issue with another comment Lee made Thursday. When asked about medical professionals supporting mask requirements, the governor said, "I talk to health care workers all the time, that's not a unified voice, you know that. There's a lot of argument and a lot of dissension about what's the right tactics. We can argue about tactics, but we can't argue about what needs to be done. And, by the way, Tennesseans need to wear a mask."

But the governor said voluntary buy-in on wearing masks is preferable to mandates.

Again, Milstone took issue, saying "Gov. Lee, your medical community is united. We are pleading with you. Work with us. Help us get the COVID crisis under control so that more businesses can stay open, schools can safely resume, and so fewer Tennesseans will suffer or die."

Tennessee doctors have "three demands," Milstone said, citing a mask mandate as No. 1, and also noting counties with mask mandates "are doing better than those that don't. Also, counties with no mask mandates are undermining the progress of those that do and crushing our hospital capacity."

Doctors also say employers need safety measures in place to maintain social distancing and should require masks to ensure the public feels safe. Lee has asked businesses to participate voluntarily in his "Tennessee Pledge," agreeing to follow such safety measures and posting signs saying they have agreed to do so.

The doctors also said they want schools and businesses to get the support they need.

"You, sir, have repeatedly told Tennesseans that they have a personal responsibility to live up to in this crisis. Gov. Lee, so do you," Milstone said.

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