NASHVILLE — A Tennessee doctor who works on the state's COVID-19 front lines accused Gov. Bill Lee on Monday of betraying his oath of office and abandoning the people by refusing to issue a statewide mask mandate to combat the state's raging coronavirus pandemic.
"In refusing to do your part, you put Tennessee on an even greater devastating path of entirely avoidable school and business closures and entirely avoidable hospitalizations and deaths," charged Dr. Jason Martin, a Nashville pulmonologist, after Lee's statewide address on Sunday night in which he again did not issue a statewide mandate.
A number of physician groups have called on Lee to impose mask mandates.
The Republican governor later defended his approach during a Monday conference call with reporters, saying, "The reason statewide mask mandates, I believe, are not helpful is because they're controversial. Everyone who wants a mask mandate is already wearing a mask."
During his Sunday night address to the state, Lee announced some restrictions on social gatherings in a new executive order. In a previous executive order, Lee delegated decisions on mask requirements to officials in Tennessee's 95 counties.
With Tennessee's post-Thanksgiving holiday number of coronavirus infections by population among the highest in the U.S. last week, Lee said the purpose of his Sunday night address was "to let Tennesseans know we're in a very serious situation. My goal was to educate Tennesseans, to let them know they need to be aware of what's happening in our state with the rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations."
Noting the state is now in the Christmas and New Year's period, Lee said, "we can't have Thanksgiving repeated because it has real consequences for the state."
The governor said his message to Tennesseans was that they "are not powerless. They have weapons. We are in a war, but they have weapons they can use to keep from getting sick and becoming hospitalized. Gathering only with those in your household and wearing a mask, washing your hands."
The governor's strategy has been to delegate decisions on mask requirements to local governments. About a third of Tennessee's counties, a list that includes the largest counties such as Hamilton, have implemented mask requirements.
Lee said that represents about 70% of the state's population. But he is urging other counties to adopt requirements, arguing residents are more likely to follow directives from mayors than the state.
The governor's decision not to issue a statewide mask directive has support from his fellow Republicans, who control the General Assembly.
But Democrats on Monday condemned what they see as the governor's inaction. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, told reporters at a news conference, "We have lost over a thousand fellow Tennesseans in our last 12 days and are on par to see another 1,000 deaths by the end of the year.
"We need the governor to step up and lead," stop "listening to the crazies" and show the "political courage to do the right thing" as a number of other states have, Yarbro said.
Pointing to statistics last week showing Tennessee had the highest population-adjusted rate of new infections among states and even nations, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said that "when you talk about us being the worst in the world, that means to me you have to take exceptional actions."
Hakeem praised Democratic and Republican mayors whom he said have "stepped up and been profiles in courage." Citing Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, a Republican who has lent his support to the county health board's mask mandate, Hakeem said Coppinger has taken the correct actions "through hell and high water." He added that if Lee put forward a mask mandate, other Republicans would follow.
"I hope [Lee] will take that leap of faith and do what is in the best interest of our citizens," Hakeem said.
Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a registered nurse, said, "there's no minimizing it. We're in a horrible situation, so I agree with that."
But Smith said Lee told legislators Monday before his public address that 80% of Tennesseans say they are wearing masks.
"I truly believe what we're seeing now is the fact that when COVID hit and became a concern back in the spring, here in Tennessee we were able to move outside, open the doors, we weren't contained. Now we're contained and we're experiencing the same scale of a problem as our fellow Americans in the colder climes," she said.
Smith said the situation "re-emphasizes the importance of getting those two vaccines, shots in arms, in the most critical populations."
More than 400,000 Tennesseans have had COVID-19 and recovered. Smith said the state's "herd" immunity is starting to build, although acknowledging it's "not there" yet.
"I understand people want government to 'do something.' But we essentially have for all intents and purposes a mask mandate in place," she said.
Dr. M. Kevin Smith, president of the Tennessee Medical Association, said Monday that physicians have "consistently recommended that mask requirement orders be issued in all counties with over 10 new cases per 100,000 population per day. Since the best county in Tennessee at present has over 80 new cases/100,000/day over the past 7 days, we believe all Tennessee counties should be under mask requirement orders at this time."
The next several weeks "will be a critical time for Tennessee in regards to the COVID pandemic," the physician said. "We expect serious illnesses and deaths to significantly increase in coming weeks. We plead with all Tennesseans to stay safe, stay apart, wear masks and stay home to protect their families and friends from this deadly virus."
Lee's executive order
In his latest executive order, Lee encourages a number of activities. For example, Tennesseans and business owners should take steps to the "greatest extent practical" to work remotely, it says. It also encourages social distancing in a group of 10 persons or more indoors.
The order directs that no more than 10 people can be at an indoor, public place for the purpose of social gatherings, activities or events. But it does have an exception. More than 10 people can be in an indoor, public place if they are "in separate, otherwise permissible smaller groups that substantially maintain six (6) feet or more of separation from other persons or separate groups," according to the order.
The governor specifically exempts places of worship, weddings, funerals, worship service "and events related thereto," saying they "are not social gatherings." It is strongly encouraged but not required that "that any large public celebration component of weddings and funerals be postponed or attended only by close family members."
Places of worship are "strongly encouraged to continue to utilize virtual or online services and gatherings and strongly encouraged to follow" state guidance.
Vaccinations arrive in Tennessee
More than 16,500 Tennesseans, primarily health care workers, have now received Pfizer-produced COVID-19 vaccinations, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told reporters on Monday. Piercey also said that with the arrival of Moderna vaccines, the state believes some 200,000 residents should be vaccinated before Jan. 1.
Tennessee received its first allotment of 115,000 Moderna vaccines earlier Monday. Piercey said the drug is now being distributed to health departments in all 95 counties as well as 40 or so smaller hospitals. Smaller hospitals have yet to receive the Pfizer vaccines due to their lack of the special cold freezers required to keep the medicine viable.
Beginning next week, Piercey said, pharmacies under contract will begin administering vaccines in the state's long-term care facilities where the elderly are especially vulnerable to the deadly virus. The commissioner said more than 90% of facilities have opted into a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. The remainder have agreements with local pharmacies.
Piercey said additional Moderna shipments are expected on Tuesday and Wednesday. With state offices closed on Thursday and Friday for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, vaccine delivery will pick back up on Monday, she added.
Little information was provided on the schedule for distributing vaccines to teachers, other select categories and the general population.
"The thing we are most concerned about right now is reducing demand on our hospitals," said Piercey, who over the weekend raise alarm bells over hospitals in the state becoming overwhelmed. "The top of our mind right now is preserving infrastructure."
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee increased to 474,343 on Monday, up 8,435 from Sunday's total of 465,908, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's daily virus update. There have been 6,136 deaths from the virus statewide.
Hamilton County has 22,769 confirmed cases and reported a total of 237 deaths related to COVID-19, according to the Tennessee State Health Department.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.