To free up supplies for COVID-19, Lee prohibits elective surgeries, certain dental services

David Floyd • Mar 23, 2020 at 8:12 PM

With the official number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Tennessee at 615 Monday, including six now in Washington County, Gov. Bill Lee has signed an executive order that would prohibit hospitals and outpatient surgery centers from performing elective surgeries.

Executive Order 18, which Lee signed on Monday, would also prevent dentists and dental clinics from performing dental services, except for emergency services. Practitioners are also asked to donate their personal protective equipment from those facilities to the nearest National Guard armory.

“In effect, what we’re doing is closing down outpatient surgery centers and dental clinics for a temporary time to provide personal protective equipment that is stored in those facilities … for the greater health care use for COVID-19,” Lee told media during a briefing on Monday.

Lee said the order also frees up ventilators from outpatient surgery centers.

Locally, Ballad Health announced Friday that the system suspended all non-emergency surgeries to free up ventilators, staff and medical supplies that may be needed to treat COVID-19 patients.

Additionally, Lee said two members of his staff have been tested for COVID-19, and the governor confirmed Monday that one has tested positive for the virus. Lee was asked if he’s taking any precautions or if he was exposed to the staff member.

“We’re live-streaming this press conference and previously we’ve had press conferences with large groups of folks in them, so that’s an example of the very serious steps we’re taking in my office to protect everyone,” Lee said. “I’ve taken personal steps to do the same thing and my exposure to the staff member that was positive was very limited, and I have no symptoms so I feel confident about my own situation. But, we’re taking every step we can to be safe as every Tennessean should do.”

Of the positive cases in the state, 72 were identified at the Tennessee Public Health Laboratory and 543 at other commercial or private labs. The state’s website does not list the number of total COVID-19 tests completed at private labs.

Most of those confirmed cases, 184, are among people aged 21-30. Davidson County has the highest number of cases at 164. In addition to the six in Washington County, Sullivan and Greene counties both have two. According to the state, there are no reported cases in Unicoi or Carter counties.

Along with the new case count, the Tennessee Department of Health also reported two fatalities from the virus.

Lee told media he organized a task force, called the COVID-19 Unified Command, to coordinate the state’s response to COVID-19 across the Tennessee Department of Health, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and the Tennessee Department of the Military.

“This team will be tasked with finding innovative, creative, quick decision-making and efficient approaches to testing, to medical supplies, for hospital beds, for hospital capacity, for quarantine strategies, for the increase of medical personnel that will be needed as this virus increases in our state,” Lee said.

Commissioner Stuart McWhorter, who currently heads the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, will leave that position to head the task force. Retired Brig. Gen. Scott Brower, TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan, Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes of the Tennessee Department of Military will also be part of the team.

Lee noted medical supplies have dwindled as the need has increased in the state, but said there’s a “tremendous national movement” for the production of personal protective equipment for states across the country, which he said Tennessee will benefit from.

“It’s hopeful, but we are not depending on others to find and source personal protective equipment for our state,” Lee said. “We are working very hard within our own departments to do that and part of what we’re doing again is to be innovative and creative.”

Lee said eight higher education institutions are 3-D printing face shields, which will allow health care workers to extend the use of their face masks when dealing with COVID-19 patients.

“It’s just one small example of the way we’re utilizing our institutions of higher education, the manufacturing companies across Tennessee, our private sector health providers — all working together to aggressively increase the supply of personal protective equipment,” he said.

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