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NASHVILLE — As the number of Tennessee's reported coronavirus cases jumped from 52 to 73 on Tuesday, with economic activity expected to fall, Gov. Bill Lee announced he will use some of the $732 million from the state's welfare program to help families, while the state's unemployment fund is well prepared to help those who lose their jobs.
The Republican governor also announced he is doubling his already previously announced $100 million infrastructure grant program for local governments to $200 million and allowing the money to be used to help address the pandemic.
"We certainly never wanted this day to come and we didn't know it would come this severely, but we're prepared in this state in ways many other states are not," said Lee, speaking to reporters in his second daily coronavirus briefing at the Capitol.
And while Hamilton, Knox and Shelby counties still have few reported case of the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus compared to Metro Nashville and Williamson counties, State Epidemiologist John Dunn said he expects the number to rise as the infection continues to spread.
Although Hamilton still just has one reported COVID-19 case, Dunn said, "different parts of the state might have had introduction of COVID-19 at different times. And then different events may facilitate the spread of clusters of disease.
"So I think in each of those metropolitan areas we are anticipating seeing more and more cases as more people get tested and the virus spreads in their communities," Dunn added.
Lee also pushed back on a report by WalletHub that said Tennessee ranks as the ninth least aggressive state in the nation in fighting the virus, with the state in the cellar of its number of public health labs, in tested coronavirus cases, public health spending per capita and in total public health emergency preparedness funding.
"I think we're very well prepared," the governor said, citing the state's $1.2 billion "Rainy Day" emergency reserve fund and lowest per capita debt. He noted there are record funds in both Tennessee's Unemployment Trust Fund as well as its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families fund.
"We're prepared for an economic downturn and the coronavirus," he said.
Meanwhile, new state figures show 16 "remote assessment sites" have been set up or are in the process of being set up in nine counties, including Metro Nashville, Williamson and Greene and Unicoi counties in Upper East Tennessee.
None are listed for Hamilton, Shelby and Knox counties.
"I think in three to four days we're going to have three or four in every major city," Lee said, pointing to private providers' expected involvement.
While Lee alluded to using funding "through Medicaid that allows specific, targeted treatment funding," there was no elaboration nor did the governor address a question as to whether he would consider expanding Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act to some 300,000 low-income adult Tennesseans.
He cited other efforts to address the "safety net" in health, including federally funded health care centers and "faith community" and other community involvement.
Earlier Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore's attempt to raise Medicaid expansion in the Senate Finance Committee was quickly shut down by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, saying lawmakers are working to address the state's crisis while quickly approving Lee's $40.9 billion budget and then recessing on Saturday for eight weeks before returning to the Capitol.
Lee said the state's Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families (TANF) is "at an all-time high in our state, and we expect there will be a significant need for TANF funding to provide assistance to needy families in Tennessee over the next months as the economy declines."
The administration will start issuing payments of up to $1,000 a month for a qualifying family of five facing joblessness, with businesses expected to begin laying workers off due to the disease's impact across the economy.
Moreover, he said the state will be "lessening the restrictions" around the program. It was not immediately clear when that will start to happen.
The governor also is extending unemployment benefits for workers being quarantined under doctor's orders and unable to work. Lee said he anticipates the federal government soon will remove job-search requirements to obtain unemployment benefits.
On another front, Lee announced there will be a special $10 million COVID-19 grant program for child care facilities.
Changes are coming to the federal food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, with easier access for needy families, said Lee who hopes to have federal guidance on the changes soon.
In the meantime, the governor is encouraging Tenneseans seeking that and similar services to go to various departments' websites to learn more and apply when the changes go through.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.