covid-19

Lee calls special session limited to Ford deal

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at Ford’s announcement it will build an electric vehicle and battery plant at the Memphis Regional Megasite on Sept. 28, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has issued a call for lawmakers to return into a special session starting on Oct. 18 to take up a $500 million grant for Ford to build a new electric vehicle and battery production campus in West Tennessee and to establish a college of applied technology at the site.

While Republican lawmakers are clamoring for a platform to denounce what they see as federal overreach on mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccines, Lee is limiting the call of the special session to matters related to the Ford deal.

While it remains unclear what exactly lawmakers could do to fight federal court rulings or executive orders, there is still a growing sentiment that a special session should be held if lawmakers are coming back to Nashville anyway for the Ford deal. If so, they may have to take the route of calling themselves into their own separate special session by gathering the signatures of at least 66 House members and 22 senators — a step that has occurred only twice in Tennessee history.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee called for the Tennessee General Assembly to convene on Monday, October 18, 2021 for a special session to address funding, buildout and oversight of Ford Motor Company’s historic $5.6 billion investment at the Memphis Regional Megasite.

“Our partnership with Ford and SK Innovation will transform West Tennessee, and it’s important we ensure this project has the structure, funding and accountability needed to be successful,” said Gov. Lee. “I am calling a special session to secure a lasting impact for Tennesseans, and I thank the legislature for their partnership in an efficient, productive assembly.”

During the special session, lawmakers will address funding to support and benefit the Memphis Regional Megasite, including site development, education and workforce preparation.

The full special session call may be viewed here.

McNally: Special session won’t make Biden order any more unconstitutional

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) wields the gavel during 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)

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) appears unmoved by calls from fellow Republicans to hold a special session on COVID-19 mandates.

Here’s a statement from McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider:

Lt. Governor McNally’s position has not changed. He does not see an urgent need for a special session. President Biden’s unconstitutional executive order does not change that. The General Assembly cannot pass any state law that would make what President Biden has done any more unconstitutional. It is already the height of federal overreach. As soon as Biden’s actual rules and regulations have been adopted, our attorney general, in conjunction with other states attorneys general, can challenge this order in the courts, the arena where this issue will ultimately be decided.”

Feds clamping down on COVID-19 antibody treatments in states like Tenn.

President Joe Biden’s administration is imposing new limits on COVID-19 antibody treatments in states like Tennessee where governors have relied on the drug instead of imposing stricter mitigation efforts, Politico reports.

Until now, the federal government has shipped the monoclonal antibody drugs on an as-needed basis, and seven Southern states — Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama — have accounted for 70% of the orders this month.

Under the new approach, the drugs would be allocated to states on a proportional basis rather than where outbreaks happen to be the worst. Critics say the current demand in states with high per-capita infection rates reflects a political resistance to vaccines and masks.

Tennessee Health Department spokeswoman Sarah Tanksley tells Politico the new scrutiny of state orders has resulted in delays getting the drugs to providers.

A look at coverage of Lee’s wide-ranging press conference

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 held a wide-ranging press conference Thursday, with several observers coming away wondering what it was meant to accomplish. While the governor touched on issues ranging from workforce development to the worsening pandemic situation in the state, several observers came away from the gathering wondering what it was meant to accomplish. Here’s a look at how reporters covered the confab:

Stella Yu, The Tennessean:

On Thursday, Lee acknowledged the effectiveness of masks in schools and vaccination for children ages 12 and up.

“We believe that masks work, and that if you want to protect your kid against (COVID-19), one tool that you would have is to send your kid to school with a mask,” he said.

But he stopped short of committing to any additional measures, insisting he needs to balance school districts’ rights to make policy with parents’ right to make decisions for their children.

“What we are trying to do is provide for as much protection as possible and provide for the rights of parents to have the last say in their children’s health,” he said. “You don’t have to exclude. You don’t have to have ‘either or.’ If you really believe it, you can find a way forward.”

Marissa Sulek, WSMV-TV:

Thursday is the second day in a row that Tennessee has set a record for the highest amount of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state.

The Department of Health reports 3,500 people are now in hospitals across the state with the virus, 79 are pediatric patients. The state has now exceeded the winter peak seen in January.

On Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee and other state officials spoke for the first time about the surge in hospitalizations. Lee said he’s not going to make any changes going forward with the state’s plan to combat COVID-19.

Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said there are 7,700 new positive cases of COVID-19 a day in Tennessee with one-third of those in children.

Phil Williams, WTVF-TV:

Tennessee doctors have tried holding news conferences, signing petitions, even producing personal video pleas — to get the governor’s attention on the issue of kids and COVID.

Thursday, frustrated that they have not been heard, a group of area physicians decided to confront Gov. Bill Lee directly as he left his own news conference.

“Governor Lee, we want to get a meeting with you,” one called out as Lee continued walking through the halls of the state Capitol.

She continued, “We want to know, as a Christian man, how you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID when this could be prevented with universal masking.”

Marta Aldrich, Chalkbeat:

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has granted eight of 14 waiver requests from Tennessee school leaders wanting to switch temporarily to remote learning under a COVID response plan that began this week.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Education said Wednesday that Schwinn also partially granted one other application and denied two, while three more requests weren’t eligible. […]

The rollout of seven-day waivers, announced late last week, is Schwinn’s attempt to give district and school leaders some flexibility on new state rules that essentially require in-person instruction this academic year, except when individual students must temporarily isolate or quarantine due to the virus.

But Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is under increasing pressure to provide even greater flexibility for virtual learning as additional districts shut down under the strain of COVID’s highly contagious delta variant. According to data from the state health department, more than 38% of all Tennessee COVID cases reported last week were among children up to age 18.

Ian Round, The Daily Memphian:

Gov. Bill Lee and cabinet members said Thursday, Sept. 2, they’re not making any major changes in their approach to the pandemic, even though Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita.

“We’re in a very difficult position in our state,” Lee said during a briefing at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Lee reiterated his stance that children should continue to learn in-person and that parents should retain the right to opt their children out of mask mandates, even though 38.5% of COVID cases are among children.

“We don’t have any plan to change that going forward,” he said. “We are working really hard to protect the lives and livelihoods of those kids.

“I still believe that a parent is the best decider of what is appropriate for their child,” he said. “No one is more qualified to make decisions about the health and wellbeing of a child than the child’s parent.”

The Associated Press:

Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday said he has no plans to introduce anti-abortion legislation similar to what Texas adopted earlier this year.

“We do not have any current plans to move forward beyond than what we’re currently awaiting which is a ruling from the court on the existing piece of legislation that we already have,” Lee told reporters.

Last year, Lee signed off on one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, but it was promptly blocked by federal court from being implemented. He has since vowed to do “whatever it takes in court” to defend the measure.

Sam Stockard commentary at The Tennessee Lookout:

Under a federal civil rights investigation, facing two lawsuits out of Shelby County over his mask opt-out order and now seeing school districts closing, Gov. Bill Lee refuses to let the buck stop with him.

“My responsibility is to work together to make the best decisions in our state that we believe will benefit Tennesseans as we navigate through what is a very difficult situation. To work with school districts, to work with parents, to work with people across the state, that’s what we’re doing,” Lee said Thursday in a press conference called apparently to calm people’s nerves but which did little to soothe anyone’s concerns about what the governor is calling a “crisis” again.

But what about districts that are closing because they can’t deal with COVID cases. Does he bear any responsibility for those, because of his policy?

“I think a pandemic has created a large number of infections across our state. A pandemic has swept through, and I think we see that in school districts, we see that in cases of pediatrics across our state. We see that in schools having to make difficult decisions about how to keep classrooms opened and closed. This pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world, and it’s doing the same thing in our state, and we’re doing everything we can to handle that,” he said.

Maybe he doesn’t think anyone is paying attention to his refusal to take the heat or to say things that have little meaning.

28,000 school-age children test positive for COVID-19 in two weeks

More than 28,000 school-age children in Tennessee have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education plans to relaunch its pandemic dashboard after Labor Day.

Chalkbeat has reported the data included in the dashboard was incomplete because of limited reporting by school districts and privacy concerns. Here’s what the publication said about the portal in November:

A Chalkbeat analysis of COVID-19 data in the state’s schools dashboard shows between 880 and 3,540 student coronavirus cases weren’t included in the district level totals from Oct. 19 to Nov. 15. Similarly, at least 685 and as many as 2,740 teacher cases also were excluded on the district level.

The wide range in the number of excluded cases in districts is caused because of how Tennessee shares data when there are fewer than five cases in a school. In Chalkbeat’s analysis, the lowest case estimates (listed above) presume there is one case in a school while the highest calculations presume there are four cases in the school.

The state “suppresses,” or excludes, data when there are fewer than five cases at a school. Data is shielded in small data counts because releasing that information could inadvertently lead to students or teachers being identified.

So if a school reports two COVID cases, for example, the state’s dashboard displays it simply as less than five cases for that school, but those same cases are excluded from the district totals in the dashboard. That means your school might report fewer than five cases, but the district level numbers would show zero.

Quarantine camps? Governor’s top lobbyist dispels myths about executive order

Gov. Bill Lee speaks in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the state Capitol in Nashville on March 22, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee’s top legialtive lobbyist, Brent Easley, has written a letter to lawmakers seeking to dispel what he called conspiracy theories about an executive order authorizing the Tennessee National Guard to continue to help giving COVID-19 vaccines and tests.

Read the whole thing in all its glory below:

Importance: High

Members,

Over the past few days, a number of you have reached out seeking information for your constituents as they have contacted you regarding several conspiracy theories that are unfortunately being shared as fact. These rumors distort Executive Order 83 that was signed on Friday, and we wanted to provide you with some additional information as you craft responses.

Five of the most frequently shared items that have been relayed to our offices are…

— The EO creates “quarantine camps” – FALSE.

— Tennesseans serving in the National Guard will be used to round up citizens that are unvaccinated and take them to locations to be quarantined or vaccinated – FALSE.

— Tennesseans serving in the National Guard will be coming to forcibly vaccinate citizens in their homes – FALSE – This is specifically prohibited by state law as well.

— This executive order is laying the groundwork for permanent lockdowns – FALSE.

— That Covid-19 vaccines are being given to livestock so it will enter the -food supply to vaccinate citizens through their meat consumption – FALSE.

All of these examples, and related rumors, are demonstrably false. Additionally, Tennesseans who serve in our National Guard have faithfully served their communities in many capacities this year and we are grateful that they remain committed to serving their neighbors.

Below are some of the key components of that Executive Order that are most frequently being misinterpreted. All of these items were included in previous EOs as well.

Section 8 allows members of the Tennessee National Guard to continue supporting our state’s response to Covid-19 in ways like administering tests, helping with voluntary vaccine distribution or driving ambulances if there is a shortage of qualified drivers. It is critical that we allow the flexibility for our National Guard members to lean in whenever a need is identified.

Section 14 allows for telehealth assessments with regard to existing mental health commitment procedures. There is no expansion or substantive change to existing mental health law processes and protections.

Section 18 is related to healthcare facility policies, and provides flexibility for hospitals to set up alternate care sites on their grounds such as tents in parking lots or use of a conference room to treat patients. This flexibility was included so that medical facilities can have this tool in their toolbox if extra space is needed.

We are responding to constituents who reach out with concerns and hope you will join us in sharing the facts. If you have additional questions on these items, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or anyone on my team.

Best,
Brent Easley

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.

Health Department: COVID-19 immunizations up 47% since mid-July

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters after a bill signing ceremony in Nashville on May 24, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The state Health Department says COVID-19 immunizations are up 47% between July 12 and Aug. 2.

Here’s the full release from Gov. Bill Lee’s administration:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Department of Health is recognizing National Immunization Awareness Month this August. This comes at a time when Tennessee is seeing an increase in the COVID-19 vaccination as more Tennesseans are choosing to become vaccinated against COVID-19. Total vaccinations increased 47 percent from July 12 to August 2. Over the last week, 94 of the 95 counties across the state have experienced an accelerated rate of vaccine administration. TDH also continues to see an increase in vaccines among all demographics.

• 3 percent increase in total population with at least one dose in the last month
• 30.8 percent of the Black population have received at least one does of the vaccine
• 40.2 percent of the Hispanic population have received at least one dose
• 12-15 age group has seen the highest increase in vaccination rate with a 7.1 percent change in the last six weeks

As children across the state begin a new school year, many families are scheduling routine checkups. TDH encourages parents to make sure routine vaccinations are part of that visit.

“Vaccinations prevent the spread of diseases and outbreaks,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “Tennessee has always done well at ensuring routine vaccinations for both children and adults are up to date. However, we know many Tennesseans got off-track with routine medical care during the pandemic and could be at risk for infection or disease. That is why it is so important to talk with a medical provider or visit your local health department to see how your family can get back on track with routine vaccinations.”

It is equally important for adults to take the proper steps to ensure they are up to date on recommended vaccines. According to the CDC, some vaccines are recommended for adults based on age, health condition, or other factors.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Interactive Vaccine Guide, which provides an Adult Vaccine Assessment Tool. CDC also offers the recommended immunization schedule for infants and children. Parents can find that schedule online at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/easy-to-read/child-easyread.html.

“While we are focused on routine vaccination, we must also continue to encourage the COVID-19 vaccine,” Piercey said. Tennesseans age 12 and above are eligible to receive the vaccine in the state. Families can make appointments with their local health department or personal medical provider to receive all their necessary vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Across the state, more and more Tennesseans are choosing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Over the last week, 94 of the 95 counties across the state have experienced an accelerated rate of vaccine administration. TDH also continues to see an increase in vaccines among all demographics.
To find information on services offered by local health departments, visit https://www.tn.gov/health/health-program-areas/localdepartments/lrhd/local-services.html.

During National Immunization Awareness Month, the Tennessee Department of Health will be sharing information and resources on social media to highlight the importance of vaccines.

Follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter @TNDeptofHealth, and use #ivax2protect to share why you choose to vaccinate.

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.

AP: Lee won’t incentivize COVID-19 shots, but farmers get state money for cattle vaccines

Gov. Bill Lee, left, is awarded a plaque at a Tennessee Cattlemens Association meeting in Gatlinburg on July 30, 2021. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Lee’s office)

Gov. Bill Lee has refused to offer incentives for Tennesseans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but the Republican’s administration has paid nearly a half-million dollars to farmers to encourage them to inoculate their cattle, according to a report by Travis Loller of the Associated Press.

Tennessee’s Herd Health Program was launched in 2019 under Lee, whose family cattle business, the Triple L Ranch, featured prominently in his campaign and in social media posts since coming into office. The program reimburses participating farmers up to $1,500 for vaccinating their herds. The state has distributed $492,561 since 2019, the AP reports.

Lee spoke of his opposition to incentivizing people to get COVID-19 shots at the Tennessee Cattlemen’s Association annual conference on Friday.

“I don’t think that’s the role of government,” Lee told the group. “The role of government is to make it available and then to encourage folks to get a vaccine.”

Lee’s office downplayed the apparent contrast between the governor’s stances on human and bovine vaccinations.

“Tennesseans have every incentive to get the COVID-19 vaccine – it’s free and available in every corner of the state with virtually no wait,” Lee spokeswoman Casey Black told the AP in a statement. “While a veterinarian can weigh in on safely raising cattle for consumption, the state will continue to provide human Tennesseans with COVID-19 vaccine information and access.”

Black did not respond to questions about whether the Lee family farm received money under the state program. Records from the state Agriculture Department don’t show anyone named Lee as a recipient.

Read Loller’s whole story here.

House health chair credits vaccine with preventing worse symptoms when infected by COVID-19

Rep. Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro), standing right, confers with Reps. John Crawford (R-Kingsport), center, and Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) on the House floor on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Health Chair Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro) is crediting his COVID-19 vaccination with potentially preventing him from hospitalization or even death when he came down with the coronavirus.

“I feel fortunate to have not contracted COVID before a vaccine was available,” Terry said in a release. “I have since contracted, and recovered from, COVID through what is called a ‘breakthrough infection’. With my health history, it could have been much worse. I’m convinced the vaccine protected my health and possibly saved me from an extensive hospitalization, or death. All Tennesseans, especially those with risk, need to talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated”.

Terry, who is a physician, said he had muscle and joint pains, fatigue, and other cold-like symptoms, “but I never developed the severe respiratory problems associated with COVID that I’m at risk for. I credit the vaccine for helping prevent major problems. I’m still not 100%, but I’m getting there.”

“I’ve never been under the illusion that I would never get infected even after vaccination. It’s just been my hope that, when I did get infected, I wouldn’t have a major reaction,” Terry said. “I’ve had medical and legislative colleagues that have had severe and deadly reactions. I’ve seen patients on ventilators and have bad outcomes. I don’t wish that on anyone. I know many folks don’t trust government, the media, or politicians, but most trust their doctor. It’s a conversation folks need to have.”

Read Terry’s full account here.