Governor: State working with Vanderbilt on COVID-19 projections

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 26, 2020 6:29 PM CT | Published: March 26, 2020 6:29 PM CT

Three weeks after the state’s first COVID-19 case confirmation, Gov. Bill Lee is asking Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to create a “unique” model to project the disease’s spread in Tennessee.

The governor confirmed Thursday, March 26, he is working with the hospital to come up with projections because national studies are “all over the board,” based on different states with varying populations and densities.

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“I have asked for a modeling that is unique to our state, and we think we’ll have that model within a day or so, having informed decisions around next steps,” Lee said during his Thursday press conference, which was done remotely.

Tennessee’s first cases were confirmed in Williamson County March 5 and then in Metro Nashville before more began to crop up across the state as more testing was conducted.

Tennessee’s confirmed case count Thursday grew to 957 out of 14,909 tests conducted by state and private labs, with Shelby County hitting 147 and Metro Nashville 203. Of those, 76 are hospitalized and three people died, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Early in the state’s response, the governor said officials had no way of knowing how bad the coronavirus situation would get. But Lee said Thursday he believes a scientific model will help the state plan its response.

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For instance, projections could help determine the number of hospital beds needed for the sickest patients, and in which areas they’ll be needed, Lee said. A deeper look at the numbers also could help determine the amount of personal protection equipment necessary for health care providers and patients.

Making sure hospitals and clinics have enough masks and other personal protective equipment as well as tests has been a problem.

“It also might give us some information on where we can expect the greatest outbreak. Certainly, we know Nashville is where the hot spot is right now. There may be other places that a modeling will show movement, so there are a number of things it can inform,” Lee said.

A new form of testing could expedite test results, cutting down the time frame from collection of specimens until labs can tell whether they are positive or negative, according to Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.

The governor issued another executive order Thursday, this one allowing retired health care providers to start practicing again without updating their education. It also allows for medical telephone assessment of those seeking treatment for mental illness and expands telemedicine efforts for all licensed providers during the COVID-19 emergency as long as they are in their normal scope of practice.

Three days after establishing a COVID-19 Unified Command to coordinate with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and Department of Military, the governor launched a public service announcement urging all Tennesseans to take preventive measures to stop the spread of the disease. It’s dubbed “Do your part, stay apart” and features celebrities such as University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway and country music singer Brad Paisley and his wife, Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

Still, Lee declined to issue a “safer at home” order even though physicians urged him to send a cohesive message across the state. He noted more than 50% of the state is already under local orders to stay at home, and he issued an order against gatherings of more than 10.

Concerns have been raised that younger people and those in rural areas are not staying home because either they don’t fear the spread of the virus or don’t believe it has reached their county.

Dr. Aaron Milstone, a Williamson County pulmonologist, said Thursday the governor’s failure to issue a stay-at-home order is “allowing the pandemic to spread through communities nearly unchecked.” With nearly 1,000 cases, Milstone predicted more deaths, many of which could be prevented with a “safer at home” order.

Dr. Sonal Gupta, an internal medicine primary care physician with Heritage Medical Associates in Middle Tennessee, said the number of positives is likely much higher. She pointed out she checked four “presumptive positives” Thursday and ordered the patients to stay at home because their symptoms were mild and the state needs to save tests for people who really need them.

Gupta also said the Tennessee Department of Health, early in the crisis, told her she could use Velcro to hold a diaper around her face instead of using an N95 mask when she was still seeing patients at her office.

“Epidemiology 101 says when you’re trying to play catch-up, you’re multiple steps behind and you have to think multiple steps ahead. COVID-19 is at least two weeks ahead of us,” Gupta said.

Lee said Thursday the state is buying thousands of personal protective devices, and he noted Lowe’s has donated Tyvek material which state inmates are using to put together protective gowns. Yet, he said the state has not reached the point of using such emergency-type gear.

Despite the governor’s assurances he and his team are doing everything possible to stem the spread, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro said Thursday the state’s response is “lagging behind,” based on what he’s seen in the governor’s press conferences.

“Right now, Tennesseans know more about how this crisis is affecting other states than they do ours,” Yarbro said. “I think we need to have detailed information and projections about potential impacts and our readiness to respond to various scenarios that are possible.”

The Nashville Democrat said the governor is providing “encouraging anecdotes” but no in-depth outlook on how the state believes the virus could spread or updates on the state’s health care capacity. He pointed out states such as Illinois provide detailed projections on the COVID-19 and the number of hospital beds and ventilators available.


Bill Lee Dr. Aaron Milstone Jeff Yarbro
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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