NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee vowed full-fledged support for Hamilton and Bradley counties in the week of deadly tornadoes and storms that swept Southeast Tennessee late Sunday and early Monday, saying "we pledge our full support to the residents of Bradley and Hamilton ... We are with you every step of the way."
Lee also said during his afternoon video conference that he is confident Tennessee can handle that as well as simultaneously battling the coronavirus pandemic as well as providing aid to Middle Tennessee counties shattered in the aftermath of deadly March 4 tornadoes that tore through Middle Tennessee in early March.
The Republican governor also announced he would extend his stay-at-home order, scheduled to expire Tuesday night, until April 30. But Lee also stressed his steps to reopen the economy will be cautious and measured, saying "we can't sacrifice the health and safety" of Tennesseans yet.
"We don't have the specifics yet," Lee said, who also noted he has named an economic recovery task force to look at slowly re-opening the economy.
"We need Tennesseans to go back to work but not in the immediate future," adding his administration is working "in cooperation with the White House and will extend to April 30 and plan to re-open our economy in May."
Several legislative Republicans have begun urging the governor to begin re-opening businesses now. Physicians and an economist counter Tennessee cannot lose progress it is now making.
But Lee said social distancing and other measures need to remain in effect for now, adding "we're not out of the woods yet and it can be some time" before Tennessee is ready.
"It is clear that the actions we have taken as a state ... but more the actions of our citizens" are helping, Lee said. But the governor said "we have to remain vigilant ... or we have a very serious risk this disease can come roaring back."
In response to questions about whether Tennessee's planned use of the vacant Alston factory site in Chattanooga for emergency overflow hospital beds has been placed on hold, Stuart McWhorter, head of the state's Unified Command to battle the coronvirus, told reporters Tennessee currently has 12,000 staffed hospital beds statewide, about 5,700 of them now occupied.
Tennessee now has a COVID-19 "surge capacity" of just over 17,000 beds within existing hospital capacity statewide. He said the state has over 2,000 Intensive Care Unit beds, about 1,200 of which are now occupied. But McWhorter also quickly noted Tennessee now has access to more than 4,000 ICU beds for use to address "surge capacity."
This story will be updated.
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