coronavirus

The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

Tennessee launches COVID-19 vaccination dashboard

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters during budget hearings in Nashville on Nov. 9, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration launched a new COVID-19 vaccination dashboard on Friday.

Here’s a release from the state Health Department:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health will provide data on COVID-19 vaccines administered in the state via a new dashboard to be provided online at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/covid-19-vaccine-information.html. This dashboard will launch Dec. 18 and will be updated each Tuesday and Friday.

Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Reporting dashboard will include data on total vaccinations reported, vaccinations reported in the last day and within the last week. The dashboard will also display the percentage of each county’s population that has been vaccinated. The first reports shared via this dashboard will reflect Tennesseans who have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Future versions will also provide data on Tennesseans who have been fully vaccinated with both their first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are eager to offer this tool to track our progress in implementing Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan and making this important preventive measure available to Tennesseans in every county of our state,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP.

TDH continues to provide daily COVID-19 data reports and will publish these reports by 5 p.m. Central time daily effective on Friday, Dec. 18.
Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan was last updated Dec. 2 and will be modified as more is learned about the vaccines Tennessee will receive. The plan is available online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/COVID-19_Vaccination_Plan.pdf.

Tennessee’s local health departments continue to offer COVID-19 testing five days a week at no charge to those wishing to be tested. TDH testing sites across the state will employ self-testing kits for adults three days a week beginning December 21, to allow staff members to transition to vaccination of frontline health care providers and first responders. Find testing hours and contact information for TDH health department testing sites online at https://covid19.tn.gov/testing-sites/.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. Learn more about TDH services and programs at www.tn.gov/health.

Rep. Byrd needs ‘miracle’ in COVID-19 treatment

Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) attends a House committee meeting on March 28, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Rep. David Byrd says he “needs a miracle” to keep from being placed on a ventilator during his hospitalization for COVID-19. The lawmaker was airlifted from to Nashville last weekend after being diagnosed with the coronavirus and pneumonia.

“I really need a miracle today!!” the Waynesboro Republican said a Facebook post Thursday. “My doctor said if my oxygen level doesn’t improve then he has no choice but to put me on a ventilator. So please pray that God will breathe His healing spirit into my lungs!!”

UPDATE: Family members and friends posted on Monday that Byrd had been put on a ventilator.

Byrd attended a recent House Republican Caucus meeting while not wearing a face covering. Days earlier, he hosted a dinner for dozens of GOP colleagues attending a caucus retreat at Pickwick Landing State Park.

Byrd has been under fire ever since being accused of — and never explicitly denying — sexual misconduct with high school basketball players when he was their coach in the 1980s.

Byrd was among 55 Republicans who in June voted in favor of a House resolution claiming the “mainstream media has sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas.”

Here are the other Republicans who voted for the measure (names in bold indicate lawmakers who have since retired or, like sponsor Micah Van Huss, were defeated in their primaries; names in italics are those confirmed to have contracted COVID-19):

Charlie Baum, Clark Boyd, David Byrd, Kent Calfee, Mike Carter, Glen Casada, Scott Cepicky, Mark Cochran, John Crawford, Michael Curcio, Clay Doggett, Bill Dunn, Rick Eldridge, Jeremy Faison, Ron Gant, Johnny Garrett, Bruce Griffey, Rusty Grills, Curtis Halford, Mark Hall, Kirk Haston, Esther Helton, Gary Hicks, Matthew Hill, Timothy Hill, Andy Holt, Dan Howell, Bud Hulsey, Chris Hurt, Kelly Keisling, William Lamberth, Tom Leatherwood, Mary Littleton, Susan Lynn, Pat Marsh, Debra Moody, Jerome Moon, Brandon Ogles, Dennis Powers, John Ragan, Tim Rudd, Iris Rudder, Lowell Russell, Jerry Sexton, Paul Sherrell, Mike Sparks, Rick Tillis, Chris Todd, Micah Van Huss, Kevin Vaughan, Terri Lynn Weaver, Mark White, Ryan Williams, Dave Wright, Jason Zachary.

Byrd airlifted to Nashville hospital after COVID-19 diagnosis

Embattled Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro) attends a House Education Committee meting in Nashville on March 28, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. David Byrd was flown from Wayne County to a Nashville hospital over the weekend after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia.

Byrd, of Waynesboro, attended a recent House Republican Caucus meeting while not wearing a face covering. Days earlier, he hosted a dinner for dozens of GOP colleagues attending a caucus retreat at Pickwick Landing State Park, The Tennessean reported.

Byrd has been under fire since being accused — and never explicitly denying — of sexual misconduct with high school basketball players when he was their coach in the 1980s. When momentum was growing to launch an official investigation into the allegations last year, Bryd told colleagues he wouldn’t run for re-election this year. But he changed his mind on the eve of the candidate filing deadline in April, saying he wanted to remain in the General Assembly to help guide the state’s response to COVID-19.

Jury trials suspended in Tennessee through end of January

While Gov. Bill Lee has rejected a return to more stringent government measures in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the state Supreme Court has decided to delay all jury trials until at least the end of January.

Read the unanimous order here:

On March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the Judicial Branch of Tennessee government and activated a Continuity of Operations Plan for the courts of Tennessee. See Tenn. Const. Art. VI, § 1; Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-501 to 16-3-504 (2009); Moore-Pennoyer v. State, 515 S.W.3d 271, 276-77 (Tenn. 2017); Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49. This state of emergency constitutes a “disaster” for purposes of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-116.

On March 25, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court continued the suspension of in- person court proceedings and the extension of deadlines. On April 24, 2020, the Court modified the suspension of in-person court proceedings and extended deadlines. Under the Court’s April 24, 2020 order, the Court reviewed and approved comprehensive written plans received from the judicial districts in Tennessee to gradually begin the conduct of in-person court proceedings. On May 26, 2020, the Court extended the state  of emergency, but eased the restrictions on in-person court proceedings, including the lifting of the suspension of jury trials, subject to certain enumerated requirements. On July 9, 2020, the Court ordered the mandatory use of face coverings.

In light of the recent significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee, particularly in the rural areas of the State, and the Court’s receipt of a number of reports of instances of failure to comply with the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts by judges, attorneys, and litigants, including in some instances the appearance in open court of attorneys and litigants who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Court considers it necessary to take additional steps to protect all participants in the judicial system and the public at large. As a result, the Court orders:

  1. The suspension of all jury trials from November 23, 2020, through January 31, 2021, subject only to exceptions which may be granted by the Chief Justice on a case-by-case basis.
  2. The previously approved comprehensive written plans of the respective  judicial districts continue in full force and effect.
  3. The Court’s July 9, 2020 mandatory face coverings order remains in full force and effect and continues to apply to all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business.
  4. As required by the previous orders of this Court and by the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts, all court matters should be conducted by means such as video conferencing and telephonic conferences, if possible, as an alternative to in-court proceedings. The Court also re- emphasizes that all in-court proceedings should be scheduled and conducted in a manner to minimize wait-time in courthouse hallways.
  5. Judges and attorneys have an ethical obligation to strictly adhere to the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts and to the provisions of all applicable orders of this Court related to COVID-19.
  6. No participant in a proceeding, including judges, lawyers, parties, witnesses, clerks and court officers, shall appear in court or in a court-related proceeding, including a deposition, who has tested positive for COVID-19 until the participant has strictly complied with the requirements of the Centers for Disease Control regarding isolation of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  7. This order applies statewide to all courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the Executive Branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee.

Under the terms of this order, the courts of Tennessee remain open, consistent  with the Judicial Branch’s obligation to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. Judges should work with local law enforcement and other county officials to ensure that, to the extent possible, courthouses remain accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.

Except as otherwise provided herein, the provisions of the Court’s May 26, 2020 and July 9, 2020 orders shall continue to govern, and the provisions of this order shall remain in effect until further order of this Court.

This order is intended to be interpreted broadly for protection of the public from risks associated with COVID-19.

It is so ORDERED.

One comes out, one goes in: Gardenhire misses fundraiser featuring Gov. Lee due to quarantine

Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) attends a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) has missed a fundraiser for his re-election campaign because he was exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. The event was headlined by Gov. Bill Lee, who only emerged from his own two-week quarantine after a member of his security detail came down with the coronavirus.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports it’s the fifth time Gardenhire has gone into isolation over a potential exposure to the virus. The senator watched the fundraiser via a videostream provided by fellow Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson).

“I wear a mask all the time. All it takes is a split second and Bam, you got it,” Gardenhire said in a Facebook post. “Very GRATEFUL for all my friends and supporters. Thank you. Going to get tested Monday.”

Gardenhire is being challenged by Democrat Glenn Scruggs, an assistant police chief in Chattanooga.

How Knoxville public radio got the White House coronavirus report Gov. Lee didn’t want to release

Gov. Bill Lee arrives for a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee ranked fourth worst in the country for COVID-19 related deaths per 100,000, according to a White House report that Gov. Bill Lee didn’t want to release to the public. The report was obtained under public records laws by a Knoxville public radio station.

The report took a circuitous path toward becoming public. The Center for Public Integrity in Washington reported about it’s existence last week, and the TNJ: On the Hill blog posted about the finding that Tennessee had slid into the “red zone” of 24 states most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That led another reporter to ask the governor about the report (and the related refusal to make it public) during his weekly press conference.

Lee responded that not all the of the details in the White House report are up to date and that he wanted to limited the sources of information about the outbreak.

“Multiple streams of data from multiple places is not helpful to people,” Lee said.

While the Lee administration didn’t want to share the White House report with the media, it did send copies to health officials around the state. That’s where WUOT-FM, the public radio station in Knoxville, comes in.

The station requested a copy from the Knox County Health Department. Director Martha Buchanan said since she shared the report with the county Board of Health, a a decision-making body, it became subject to Tennessee open records laws.

The report includes a recommendation to impose a statewide mask mandate, which is something Lee has decided to leave to county mayors and health departments.

The report says Tennessee saw a 41% spike in new coronavirus cases between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, and a 32% increase in COVID-19 related deaths over the period. At the same time, the number of tests being conducted around the state has dropped. The sharpest increases in coronavirus cases has occurred in Putnam, Wilson, and Sullivan counties, according to the White House.

Read the full WUOT and the White House report on Tennessee report here.

Lee calls for suspending negative consequences from school testing

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Friday he will ask lawmakers to suspend any consequences for schools, teachers, and students if they do poorly on testing during the current school year.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn today called for removing negative consequences for schools and educators associated with student assessments for the 2020-2021 school year. Student assessments will be conducted as planned.

“Given the unprecedented disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic and extended time away from the classroom has had on Tennessee’s students, my Administration will work with the General Assembly to bring forward a solution for this school year that alleviates any burdens associated with educator evaluations and school accountability metrics,” said Gov. Lee. “Accountability remains incredibly important for the education of Tennessee’s students, and we will keep this year’s assessments in place to ensure an accurate picture of where our students are and what supports are needed to regain learning loss and get them back on the path to success.”

“Due to COVID-19, Tennessee districts and schools experienced extended periods away from the classroom and missed critical instruction time during the spring. The department supports Governor Lee’s call for holding teachers and schools harmless from negative consequences associated with accountability measures this school year,” said Commissioner Schwinn. “Administering assessments to gauge student learning and ensuring strong accountability best enables us to meet the needs of all students, however we know the significant challenges our teachers and school and district leaders are facing and it remains critical to reward their good work. We look forward to working together with our elected officials on a solution for this school year that preserves our strong foundations while ensuring that every teacher feels supported in focusing on educating their students.”

Gov. Lee in quarantine after COVID-19 exposure

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19 by a member of his security detail. The governor has tested negative so far for the virus.

Here’s a statement from Lee’s office:

Today, a member of the Governor’s Executive Security Detail has tested positive for COVID-19. Gov. Lee is feeling well and has tested negative for COVID-19 but out of an abundance of caution, he is quarantining at home with the First Lady until further notice. Governor’s Office protocol requires masks and social distancing and no staff are believed to be positive at this time. 

Tennessee among 24 states on White House ‘red zone’ list

Tennessee is among 24 states on the White House’s coronavirus “red zone” list, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The state is among 13 where officials have refused to share details about the findings.

Here’s the article originally published by Liz Essley Whyte of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.:

Twenty-four states are in the “red zone” for new coronavirus cases, according to documents the White House Coronavirus Task Force distributes to governors every week but does not publish. States in the middle of the country — North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and Utah — topped the list.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained the weekly reports, the existence of which it first revealed in July. The Trump administration has been withholding them from the public. In July, 18 states were in the red zone, with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents. 

The task force in its most recent reports emphasized the need for masks and testing. “Masks must be worn indoors in all public settings and group gathering sizes should be limited,” the task force told red-zone Kansas, where most counties have opted out of a statewide mask mandate. 

The Oct. 4 report to Idaho appears to be the first time the task force has explicitly recommended closing schools: “Recommend change to online K-12 classes in counties and metro areas with elevated test positivity and incidence among schoolage children and increasing hospital utilization,” the White House advised, noting that outbreaks in 10 Idaho counties may be related to school openings. The Trump administration championed opening schools this summer, and the task force reports previously generally avoided the topic of K-12 education. The Oct. 4 reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force included a ranking of states based on their rates of new cases. States with more than 100 new cases last week per 100,000 residents were in the red zone. (Screenshot of report)

But the task force didn’t recommend the steps it advised for red zone states earlier in the pandemic, such as closing bars and limiting gatherings to 10 people or fewer. The Democrat-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis last month criticized the task force for watering down its recommendations over time.

Only one state, Vermont, was in the green zone for cases in the most recent report, with just six new cases per 100,000 residents in the last week.

The White House earlier told Public Integrity that it was not releasing the reports because the pandemic response should be state-led and federally supported. “The United States will not be shut down again,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in August.

Since then, Public Integrity has contacted officials in all 50 states weekly to obtain the reports. Governors and health officials in 13 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia — have refused to share any so far or have not responded to repeated inquiries to multiple officials. The White House has said that states are free to share the reports if they want to do so.

The 24 states in the red zone are:
1. North Dakota
2. South Dakota
3. Wisconsin
4. Montana
5. Utah
6. Iowa
7. Nebraska
8. Idaho
9. Arkansas
10. Oklahoma
11. Missouri
12. Kansas
13. Wyoming
14. Tennessee
15. Minnesota
16. Kentucky
17. Alabama
18. Mississippi
19. Alaska
20. Nevada
21. Illinois
22. Indiana
23. Texas
24. South Carolina