Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the state is “in a very challenging spot” in the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and urged Tennesseans on Wednesday to follow public health guidance.

Saying that’s the case “all across the state,” the governor added, “as such, we are really encouraging Tennesseans not only to think about how they do Thanksgiving different, but think about how they do every day, and how important wearing a mask is, and how important not gathering when you don’t have to is, and how important the simple things we can do and the choices we can make (are) — especially over this next few weeks between the time that we are in today and the time when we have a vaccine.”

Lee said the state has a responsibility to build the infrastructure to effectively distribute the vaccine when it is available, which he said has been accomplished.

“We have worked very hard,” Lee said, adding that he was proud Tennessee was chosen to be part of a distribution pilot for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Lee said the first doses of the vaccine are expected to arrive in mid-December, but the exact amount it will get is unknown.

“We are on the cusp of vaccines being distributed and folks across Tennessee getting that vaccine,” Lee added, noting that any vaccine will be a “choice.”

“At the end of the day, Tennesseans will ultimately, individually, make the difference,” Lee said, “because it’s the individual choices that we all make over the next couple months before we have vaccine fully deployed that will continue to mitigate the spread of this virus and allow us to actually get to the place where we’re putting it behind us.

“I have a great deal of hope,” Lee said.

And though a vaccine likely won’t be readily available to the general public until 2021, Lee said he remains opposed to a statewide mask mandate, though he called masks “an incredibly important tool” and said “we need Tennesseans across the state at every corner to understand that masks are a part of what we all need to do to help fight this.”

“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. “I believe that local decision making is better.”

Lee was also asked about hospital capacity in Northeast Tennessee, and said the state is working very hard with the Tennessee Hospital Association to address capacity issues statewide — including loosening licensing requirement for healthcare providers, providing financial support for hospitals to hire more people and the creation of COVID-specific nursing homes for residents who’ve been infected but no longer require hospitalization.

“We’re actually working every single day with hospital systems to pull levers that now need to be pulled because of the capacity situation we find ourselves in,” Lee said.

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