“The data is encouraging,” Lee said in a noon conference call with reporters. “It is showing that we are accomplishing our goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19 by the multitude of efforts that are being made across the state.”
Lee said tallies for new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and recoveries are moving in a “very encouraging” direction.
The Tennessee Department of Health reported Thursday afternoon that there are now a total of 4,634 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, an increase of 272 from the 4,362 cases reported Wednesday.
The number of deaths has now reached 94, up from 79 on Wednesday. The department reports that 505 people have been hospitalized and 921 have recovered, up from the 592 recoveries reported on Wednesday.
There are now 32 cases in Washington County, 34 in Sullivan, 2 in Unicoi, 3 in Carter, 22 in Greene and 2 in Johnson.
Lee said the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has made more than 1,200 shipments of personal protective equipment to health care providers across the state.
He estimated that 72% of the state’s shipments have gone to rural counties.
Lee said the state continues to put an emphasis on testing, noting that there are now testing facilities from the state lab at every health department and every county.
The governor said it’s his understanding that no one is being turned away for a test that qualifies, which means they show signs of symptoms or have been in contact with someone with the virus.
“Our goal in the very short future is to expand that so that anyone who wants to have a test can get one and doesn’t have to have all the pre-existing requirements,” Lee said.
In order to get more people tested, Lee said the state will likely expand the list of allowable reasons.
With recent statewide numbers showing another bump in new unemployment filings, Lee said Tennessee has processed about 100,000 claims, but he acknowledged there are still many waiting.
Numbers from the Tennessee Department of Labor show that there were 112,438 new unemployment claims filed statewide during the week of April 4, up from 94,492 the week before. The number of new claims has continued to increase since the week of March 14.
Lee said the state is “aggressively” working to improve the customer experience for people applying for unemployment benefits.
“We have merged and are merging that federal piece of the unemployment along with the state piece that is available,” Lee said. “So we are processing them now, but very soon we hope to be doing it with much greater speed.”
State grants incoming
Johnson City is expecting to receive $1.5 million from the $200 million pool of grant funding Lee announced earlier this week for city and county governments in Tennessee.
The money must be spent on one-time expenses and cannot be used for operations like salaries, debt service payments or utilities. Because the funds won’t be available before July 1, city spokesperson Ann Marie French said officials are evaluating how to best use the funding in next year’s budget.
Lee also announced this week that the state would be spending $10 million to support small and rural hospitals, which he said need to stay open and operating to accommodate COVID-19 cases.
Lee said Thursday that restrictions on elective procedures have caused these hospitals to struggle, which was one of the reasons the state announced the $10 million pool of grant funding.
Hospitals that qualify will receive $500,000 apiece.
Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said Tuesday that he applauds the governor’s decision to make that funding available, noting that there are a number of rural hospitals in the state that will benefit from the grant.
Even though the majority of rural hospitals in the region are losing money, Levine said Ballad Health has been able to support those facilities because of its unique structure.
Levine said Ballad’s priority is to make sure that hospitals that need that money for “pure survival” should be able to access that funding first.
“And then Ballad Health will take its appropriate place in line,” he said. “While we certainly have the right to apply for those dollars, we think the right thing to do for the state is to be respectful for those organizations that have a much bigger and immediate problem than we do.”