With Tennessee battling the nation’s worst novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Gov. Bill Lee announced new restrictions on public gatherings during a statewide address Sunday night but refused to institute a statewide mask-mandate — instead pleading with people to wear masks and avoid mixed household gatherings.
“Beyond family gatherings and what I’m asking you to do in your own home, we need to address public gatherings through these important weeks as well,” Lee said in his roughly five-minute speech. “I’m signing an order that will limit indoor public gatherings to 10 people. I believe high school sports are an important part of our kids’ lives and they should continue, but in coordination with the TSSAA, we’re limiting attendance at indoor sporting events.
“We know it’s gatherings that have caused this surge, and that’s why we’re making these decisions around gatherings that will help us blunt the rise in cases,” Lee continued.
Despite calling Tennessee “ground zero” for the COVID-19 surge, Lee did not include a mask mandate in the order, saying that “many think a statewide mandate would improve mask-wearing, many think it would have the opposite effect.”
“This has been a heavily politicized issue, please do not get caught up in that,” Lee said, “and don’t misunderstand my belief in local government on this issue: Masks work, and I want every Tennessean to wear one.”
Lee has been staunch in his opposition to mandating the use of face coverings in public, instead calling for personal responsibility and granting local county mayors the authority to issue mask mandates. During a conference call with reporters on Nov. 25, Lee called masks “an incredibly important tool” but said he felt “local decision-making was better.”
“We need to develop a strategy in our state that will create the greatest adherence to mask wearing and I actually believe, and I think most people do, that government closest to the people is the best kind of government, and that people trust their elected officials to make decisions much more than they trust a state health department or a state government,” he said.
The order limiting public gatherings does not apply to private events, churches, weddings or funerals, and will remain in effect through Jan. 19. Lee’s executive order “strongly encourages” those events follow public health guidance, however.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee currently has the highest population-adjusted rate of infection in the country — higher than that of Oklahoma, Texas and California.
Hours before Lee’s address, Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey sounded the alarm as the state’s hospitals struggle to deal with the surge in cases.
“This exponential case growth that we’ve had over the last two to three weeks has also driven a corresponding and equally startling rise in hospitalizations, and that startling rise in hospitalizations has put a critical strain on our hospitals,” Piercey said.
Piercey said the state recently received federal support in the form of a 32-person Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster management aid team, which was deployed to two Northeast Tennessee hospitals. The FEMA team’s deployment ends on Dec. 24, but Piercey said they anticipate their stay will be extended.
“That’s a federal resource where they actually send staff for short deployments,” Piercey said. “The current deployment is scheduled to end on 12/24 — we have gotten an indication that that will be extended, but we do not know how long that will be extended for.”
National Guardsmen with medical training have also been deployed to “at least two large hospital systems in the state” to work at the bedside, but Piercey did not specify which hospital systems they were. Ballad Health, as of Dec. 2, was utilizing members of the National Guard in its testing clinics to help free up staff to be redeployed elsewhere.
Statewide there were 2,893 people hospitalized with the virus as of Sunday — accounting for a quarter of all hospitalizations in Tennessee, according to a new dashboard showing hospital bed utilizations released by the Department of Health on Sunday. COVID-19 patients in intensive care, meanwhile, account for 40% of all ICU patients in the state. Both rates were higher in the region, with COVID-19 patients accounting for 29.1% of all hospitalizations and 45.29% of all ICU patients in the region as of Dec. 19.
“If we have another surge after Christmas or after New Year like we did for Thanksgiving, it will completely break our hospitals,” Piercey warned. “And so we’re asking Tennesseans not to gather with those outside of their households, and when they are outside of their homes to wear masks at all times. We have to change our behavior if we’re going to preserve access to hospital and emergency care resources over the next several weeks.”