coronavirus

Lee declines to call special session, issues order for parents to opt kids out of mask mandates

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)

Gov. Bill Lee has declined House GOP calls for a special session to block mask mandates and debate the “discrimination” against customers of private businesses who can’t prove they have been inoculated or tested for COVID-19.

Lee instead issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates for children attending K-12 schools.

Here are the governor’s remarks as prepared for delivery on Monday.

Thanks for joining today. Before we cover an important COVID-19 announcement, I want to express a heavy heart regarding the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan. Over the years, many Tennesseans were deployed and some lost their lives to fight the War on Terror and create stability in the region. 

The sacrifices of American troops are not in vain. My hope is that wisdom will prevail in the United States’ response. I hope you will join me in praying for the people of Afghanistan. 

Let me start off this portion of the briefing by saying that we’re facing a significant challenge in our hospitals as a result of the increase in COVID cases. 

The most important tool we have to fight the pandemic is a vaccine. I encourage Tennesseans who have not been vaccinated to talk to their doctor to consider getting vaccinated and to make an informed decision. I worked with my doctor and received the vaccine and it has been a dependable tool to keep me healthy. 

The government will not mandate or require anyone to get a vaccine but I encourage you to consider it for yourself. It’s widely available, it’s effective and it’s free. 

More and more Tennesseans are choosing to be vaccinated, almost 100,000 per week and this is good news for the health of our state. 

If you do become sick with COVID, early intervention is important – please call your doctor to ask about treatments. Monoclonal antibodies are widely available at 72 centers across our state and are highly effective if used early. Your doctor can advise you on the best route for you. 

I want to acknowledge the frustration and fear that many are feeling – fear of COVID and its effects on your family, fear of government intervention and its effect, and frustration over everything from masks to information that changes by the day. 

Right now, some of the greatest frustration is occurring in our K-12 schools, especially around the issue of mask mandates. While local decision-making is important, individual decision-making by a parent on issues regarding the health and well-being of their child is the most important. 

No one cares about the health and well-being of a child more than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district. 

Districts will make the decision they believe are best for their schools, but parents will have the ultimate decision-making for their individual child’s health and well-being. I will not be calling a special session at this time. 

Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of COVID but those hospital beds are filled with adults. Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach. 

Our hospitals and our health care workers are doing everything they can to take care of Tennesseans. That’s why I signed an executive order last week giving them maximum flexibility to do their jobs. My administration continues to provide funding and staffing support to ensure there are no barriers to hospitals facing strain. I commend them once again for their incredible work and service to Tennesseans. 

While we deal with this issue, it remains important that we keep our schools open and in person as we’ve seen the devastating loss of progress our kids have had academically when schools were remote or closed. Parents, if your children aren’t feeling well – keep them at home, stay in touch with your pediatrician. Good common sense will go a long way. 

I commend school boards across this state as most of you kept your schools open last year and are committed to doing so again this year. 

It’s frustrating that we’re headed into another school year with these challenges – it’s disheartening that the COVID challenge continues – but I’m proud of Tennesseans who, in spite of suffering, have persevered, and because of their character, there’s great hope. Thank you for joining today.

House Republicans urge Lee to call special session to restrict COVID-19 response

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

All 73 members of the House Republican Caucus have signed on to a letter urging Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session to curtail local authorities’ powers to impose mask mandates or for businesses to restrict access to only those who have been vaccinated or tested negative.

There are two ways for a special session to occur. The governor can call one (and limit the scope of what’s taken up) or lawmakers can collect the signatures of two-thirds of both chambers to call themselves back in. The House letter sent to Lee on Wednesday is not the same as issuing their own call. Senate leadership has not been quite as gung-ho about storming into another special session while the delta variant of the virus is on the rise.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

Dear Governor Lee:

The General Assembly of the State of Tennessee has a constitutional duty to enact general law to shape the options, decisions, and priorities of our local governments, including local boards and other local entities.

We write today to request that you call an extraordinary session of the General Assembly in order for the legislature to convene and address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and officials. It is of the utmost urgency to move quickly due to the potential of significant harm to Tennesseans.

We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are properly compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions.

The six independent health boards, along with unelected officials, have made and will continue to make decisions that stifle access to educational opportunities for our children and infringe on their freedoms and liberty. Some of these mandates have been accompanied by threats of reckless endangerment, school closure, and segregating students based on vaccination status.

We believe there is much debate and action needed around the appropriate balance of parents’ right to make healthcare decisions for their children and the government’s ability to mandate healthcare decisions upon them.

Finally, in addition to the debate needed around continued COVID-19 mandates, the General Assembly needs to evaluate the ongoing discrimination of Tennesseans by prohibiting their access to buildings due only to their vaccination status.

Therefore, we request that you, by virtue of the power and authority vested in your office pursuant to Article III, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution, call the One Hundred and Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Tennessee to convene in extraordinary session for the purposes stated above as well as addressing other issues related to COVID-19. We look forward to working with you to pass meaningful legislation so that-Tennessee children, families, and businesses can continue to thrive.

16 of 27 Senate Republicans agree: Get vaccinated

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, Majority Leader Jack Johnson, and Caucus Chair Ken Yager are among a group of 16 Republicans in the state Senate signing onto letter urging Tennesseans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“This should not be political,” the senators say in the letter.

Others signing the missive are Sens. Richard Briggs, Todd Gardenhire, Ferrell Haile, Ed Jackson, Jon Lundberg, Becky Massey, Bill Powers, Shane Reeves, Paul Rose, Art Swann, Page Walley, Dawn White, and Bo Watson.

Eleven Republicans declined to sign on. They are Sens. Paul Bailey. Mike Bell, Janice Bowling, Rusty Crowe, Joey Hensley, Brian Kelsey, Frank Niceley, Mark Pody, Kerry Roberts, Steve Southerland, and John Stevens.

The Senate’s six Democrats were not asked to participate.

Here’s the full letter:

Dear Tennesseans,

Although we have made progress, COVID-19 is not over. There has been a recent spike in the number of cases, which includes the virus’s more contagious delta variant. A strong majority of these cases are among those who are not vaccinated. And virtually all of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

As people across our state are exposed to the spread of this deadly virus, we strongly urge Tennesseans who do not have a religious objection or a legitimate medical issue to get vaccinated.

The vaccines have been found to be safe and effective against COVID-19. If they had been available from the start and widely used, over 600,000 American families that are mourning the loss of a loved one, along with tens of thousands of people who are awaiting lung transplants, or trying to learn to walk again, would have avoided that heartache.

Vaccines have been saving lives for over a century. As a result, polio and smallpox have been eradicated and measles, mumps and rubella are rare. Building on these 20th century medical breakthroughs, the COVID-19 vaccines were developed utilizing high standards and the best medical technology available.

Even the new mRNA technology, which has caused some people to be vaccine hesitant, has been around for decades. The mRNA vaccines teach your body how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response, without using a live virus. This technology is found in essentially every pharmacy, medical office and laboratory. Recombinant DNA technology has almost completely replaced insulin obtained from animal sources for the treatment of insulin-dependent diabetes with great success for over 30 years.

We are well beyond the COVID-19 vaccine trial stage. Nearly 338 million doses of the vaccines have been administered in the U.S. with few adverse effects. Please compare the very rare instances of side effects with the more than 600,000 deaths in the U.S. which have occurred due to COVID-19. The facts are clear — the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks.

Under no circumstances will the state of Tennessee require mandatory vaccines or vaccine passports for adults or children. We recognize this is a personal choice. However, we urge every Tennessean to consider the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine and talk to your doctor about their recommendations on the best way to protect yourself and your family against COVID-19.

Unfortunately, efforts to get more people vaccinated have been hampered by politicization of COVID-19. This should not be political. Tennesseans need factual information to make educated decisions regarding their health. Please consider looking at the facts which are presented by Vanderbilt University Medical Center or the New England Journal of Medicine, both which are among the most respected health resources worldwide.

Every life lost to this virus is tragic. The COVID-19 vaccines save lives. Again, we strongly urge all Tennesseans to study the facts, talk to your doctor and get vaccinated.

Signed,

Randy McNally, Jack Johnson, Ken Yager, Ferrell Haile, Richard Briggs, Todd Gardenhire, Ed Jackson, Jon Lundberg, Becky Massey, Bill Powers, Shane Reeves, Paul Rose, Art Swann, Page Walley, Dawn White, Bo Watson

Physician Martin mulls Dem bid for governor

Physician Jason Martin of Nashville has formed an exploratory committee for a Democratic gubernatorial bid next year, the Nashville Scene’s Stephen Elliott reports.

Martin is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Sumner Regional Medical Center and a former Meharry Medical College professor. While he has never previously sought public office, he has become an outspoken critic of Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s pandemic response.

Martin chronicled his experience in treating patients early in the pandemic in a Tennessean feature in April 2020.

Elliott reports Martin has hired Amplified Public Strategies, a new firm founded by former Tennessee Democratic Party communications director Emily Cupples and state Rep. Torrey Harris. Martin is appearing with Harris, fellow Memphis Democratic Rep. London Lamar, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and Michelle Fiscus, the state’s former vaccination chief who was fired earlier this month, at an event in Memphis this weekend.

Cupples had also started the Beat Bill Lee PAC in April.

With the primary just over a year away, Carnita Atwater of Memphis is only declared Democrat in the race.

Read the rest of Elliott’s report here.

Burchett takes to WSJ opinion section to decry proxy voting in Congress

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville) has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today denouncing the ongoing practice of proxy voting and virtual meetings in Congress.

“I didn’t run for Congress to sit on Zoom in my district office or to have one of my colleagues cast votes on my behalf,” Burchett writes. “These often-abused protocols were implemented in response to a pandemic that is in retreat.”

The current rules are “ineffective and abused by members of both parties,” he writes. Some GOP members used proxy voting so they could attend a CPAC meeting in February, while Democrats have done so to campaign or accompany President Joe Biden on a trip to Wisconsin, according to Burchett. He is similarly critical of virtual meetings.

“Policy experts work in Washington offices, where these hearings should be taking place in person,” Burchett said.

While Burchett sees bipartisan lapses, he blames the current state of affairs on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“Exploitation of the House’s coronavirus protocols won’t stop unless the rules change so that members are expected to show up to work and do their jobs,” Burchett said. “Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to take a step back, look at the rest of the country, and re-evaluate how she is running the House.”

Tennessee in line to receive $8.56B from latest federal relief package

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee is projected to receive $8.56 billion in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funding, according to Gov. Bill Lee’s Financial Stimulus Accountability Group. That includes $4 billion to the state, $2.26 billion to local governments, and $2.3 billion to local school districts.

The state share includes $3.82 billion for the state fiscal recovery fund and $216 million for state coronavirus capital projects.

The local fiscal recovery fund includes $941 million for cities and $1.33 billion for counties.

“These funds represent an historic opportunity to make investments in your communities,” Comptroller Jason Mumpower said in a meeting of the financial group.

Health commissioner warns of possible COVID-19 surge

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

State Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey is warning of the next potential spike in COVID-19 infections despite the downward trends of the last quarter.

The Nashville Post reports the state’s infection rate dropped 85% between January and the middle of this month, but that 8,500 new cases were reported over the last week, with the active case count jumping by 1,000 people. Hospitalization rates are also creeping up.

“I’m fairly certain it’s going to get worse. What I don’t know is how high the next surge might be,” Piercey told lawmakers. “We are already starting to see — we saw a plateau for three to six weeks — now we are starting to see it tick back up ever so slightly. What I don’t know is whether that will be a blip or if that will be a pretty substantive surge.”

Piercey said the statistics underscore the need to convince more Tennesseans to get vaccinated. Gov. Bill Lee has announced the state will drop all restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines by early April, meaning innoculations will be available to anyone who wants one.

“Some of the vaccine hesitancy we have encountered was expected. We anticipated some of it, but there has been, to be honest, some vaccine hesitancy that we did not anticipate, and we can’t readily identify reasons for that,” she said. “That’s why the market research piece is so important, in all 95 counties, particularly among rural conservative and rural white men, why they are hesitant and how to address it properly.”

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.