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ETSU College of Medicine Dean calls for 'safer-at-home' order; local leaders deferring to state

Jonathan Roberts • Mar 25, 2020 at 11:35 PM

Dr. Bill Block, dean of the Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, is urging local and state officials to issue a “safer-at-home” order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“The best time to act is now,” Block said. “I know that’s a difficult thing for all of us to wrap our heads around — that we’re not seeing the problem — but we need to have a response.

“It is a major disruption, and I understand that for all of us,” Block added. “My fear is that if we don’t act quickly, then once it’s already coming through the area we’re going to have issues with capacity just like everybody else is having.”

Since March 22, officials in at least a half-dozen Tennessee cities and counties (including Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga and Knox County) have issued safer-at-home orders, though local officials have been hesitant to follow suit, instead deferring to county and state health officials.

“We’re getting a lot of input from the community — and rightly so — to try to influence (more restrictive orders),” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, adding that she “really values” Block’s input. “We have given that input to the local health department that we would like to see their guidance so we can all be on the same page.

“I think there’s more and more input to move in that direction,” Brock said.

In a statement to the Press, a spokesperson for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department said “county and regional health officers can provide guidance from the state health commissioner and the governor to local leadership, but cannot go beyond those recommendations.”

In a press conference with regional leaders on Wednesday, Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Gary Mayes said he feels the “public health position right now is where we should be.”

“If the governor decides to ratchet up the closures, we would of course support that, but to do it unilaterally in a county or city would not have as much of an impact as it would in a statewide approach, I believe,” Mayes said.

Block said he believes a federal safer-at-home order would be “probably the most effective,” but noted he believes “that’s not going to happen.”

“If (Tennessee) Gov. (Bill) Lee would do, I think that would be tremendous,” Block said. “If, for whatever reason, he feels he can’t, it in some ways falls to the local leaders to do that.”

In a statement to the Press, a spokesman for Lee’s office said the governor is “continuing to monitor this rapidly evolving situation” and that “should the governor determine that a statewide ‘safer-at-home’ order is necessary, he will make that decision at the appropriate time.”

“Our goal is to keep the public, especially vulnerable populations, safe while doing everything possible to keep Tennesseans in a financially stable position,” the statement read. “The governor also recognizes that each community is different and supports mayors in determining what is the most appropriate response for their respective communities.”

As of Tuesday, there were 784 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tennessee — with seven in Washington and Greene counties, along with two others in Sullivan County. So far, there has not been any evidence of community spread in the region, but Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said the area is “at high risk of community-based spread” during Wednesday’s conference.

“I think it’s not a matter of, but a matter of when,” Block said of community spread.