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This story was updated Monday, March 16, 2020, at 8:30 p.m. with more information.

For answers to frequently asked questions about the coronavirus, click here

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NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee, who on Monday called on schools across Tennessee to close, also announced that 15 drive-through COVID-19 testing sites should soon be up and running in six metropolitan areas, including Hamilton County, for the elderly and other vulnerable populations with symptoms.

The governor also issued a call for Tennesseans "to step up and engage" in helping neighbors and others.

"Tennesseans can do this," Lee said. "This is what we're made for. I encourage Tennesseans to take this example to serve their neighbors as well as [others] in the weeks and months as we deal with this crisis."

Tennesseans can "become a part of the solution," the Republican said.

Lee's comments came during a state Capitol news conference in which he discussed the current situation and anticipated actions regarding the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country. So far, 52 Tennesseans, including a Hamilton County adult, have been diagnosed with the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.

While the governor urged schools to close in all 95 counties, he stopped short of requiring them to do so. Hamilton County has already moved to close its schools. And Lee said his administration is working on food programs for students whose schools have closed and indicated the Tennessee National Guard may get involved in assisting on testing sites.

Lee and state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey also asked Tennesseans with no symptoms not to overwhelm testing facilities. And the governor and Piercey warned that the numbers of residents who are diagnosed with COVID-19 will rise with tests becoming more available starting later in the week.

The situation continues to evolve quickly, said Lee, who just last Thursday declared a state emergency that gave him powers to act quickly in a number of areas.

It's also scrambled his and the GOP-led General Assembly's plans on the state's $40.9 billion anticipated budget, with dollars being reassigned to address areas such as unemployment, meals, health care and other areas.

The crisis has jumbled state House and Senate leaders' plans, with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, saying Monday lawmakers will pass this week a scaled-down budget, with Lee's epidemic and Middle Tennessee tornado response funding recommendations included.

And the Capitol and lawmakers' home in the Cordell Hull State Office Building were eerily quiet after Lee, McNally and Sexton issued edicts barring the general public as well as lobbyists, with officials seeking to keep the virus from spreading. Reporters for news organizations were allowed in to cover proceedings. To get into Lee's news conference, reporters were required to get their temperatures taken.

Lee warned that "what's about to happen across this state is that schools will close, students who have no child care will be returning home, parents who have jobs that will require them to be out of the home will be facing dilemmas, and hardships for families will immediately take place."

In issuing his call for action to Tennesseans, Lee said, "I'm urging Tennesseans to step up in their communities and be a part of the solution." Churches, for example, can adopt a school to help and families can offer help such as watching the children of workers.

Pointing to Metro Nashville, where the mayor has ordered bars and honky tonks to close, Lee said that may be needed in other areas, as well. Lee noted that initial guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was for Americans to avoid gatherings or situations involving 50 people or more. That's now been slashed to gatherings of 10, the governor said.

McNally and Sexton also announced the General Assembly plans to scuttle action on most bills, including controversial ones such as the governor's permitless gun-carry measure as well as a bill declaring the "Holy Bible" as state government's official book.

Exceptions to that include the $40.9 billion state budget, a bond bill and related measures, as well as other measures that must be passed.

Lawmakers then plan to recess for eight weeks and then return and come back to other bills, including the permitless gun-carry measure.

There's been low-key grumbling among some lawmakers who didn't want to extend the legislative session into May or June in an election year. But there was none of that on Monday.

Lee is expected to use parts of some reserves in a welfare program and unemployment insurance program.

And while Tennessee has a health $1.2 billion emergency reserve, the economic impact on state revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. Lee as well as lawmakers are talking about boosting funding to help Tennesseans weather the crisis.

With Lee expected to get his budget revisions to lawmakers either Wednesday or Thursday, Senate Finance Commissioner Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said, "there's a clear desire to limit new spending" in other areas and "to fund the things essential to government. And then we've got a couple of disasters, we got the economic disaster and then we've got the natural disaster [tornadoes] to provide funding so that we have ways of responding. I think that's the objective."

With the health crisis expected to wallop anticipated businesses, economic activity generally and thus state revenues, Watson said, "I don't know what their projection is going to be. I would assume it'd be near zero just as a safe point."

Prior to the coronavirus, state officials had been looking at about 3% growth.

Interrupting her trek from Cordell Hull to the House chamber to hear epidemiology experts brief lawmakers, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said the state "is responding very appropriately. I think the governor has deployed many assets. He was timely in declaring a state emergency."

"We're in a great position at the state and local levels to receive all the [federal] aid that we can," said Smith, a registered nurse. "We've got to make sure that Erlanger and the local health departments and hospitals, they're about to activiate the community clinics and the testing sites. Everyone's just going to have to be very orderly and follow directions."

She paused and added, "it's just like being in intensive care," a reference to one of her roles when she worked as a nurse.

Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, also a nurse, said Hamilton Countians "should heed the advice of the CDC and other health officials and really implement implement the social distancing and good handwashing techniques. I think that's very important.

"If you know you're not feeling good, stay away from everybody."

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

 

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