Critics say Tennessee push to reopen economy is backfiring

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 12, 2020 3:29 PM CT | Published: July 12, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The Lee Administration is defending its COVID-19 efforts in a statewide economic reopening, hoping to quell the virus as school days near.

But critics fear the strategy isn’t working and that the push to reboot the economy is backfiring.

No new requirements are being put into place to combat the pandemic with people returning to work and play routines, causing cases to spike statewide.

With Tennessee adding record numbers in recent days, about 1,500 to 1,700 infections, Health Department Commissioner Lisa Piercey has said consistently that increases in the viral spread are to be expected with the lifting of business shutdowns.

Lee: Social distancing pushes COVID-19 projections down dramatically

Meanwhile, the state’s strategy has largely depended on the public to understand the virus’s danger and abide by recommendations rather than mandates.

Driving home that point is difficult with President Donald Trump saying 99% of cases are not dangerous and that children are not highly susceptible and should return to school buildings in August. So far, the state has said it is planning to allow hybrid school openings, with some students staying home and others attending classrooms.

“What I heard was a lot of Trumpisms, definitely not to the point of disdain or disregard that Trump has been displaying,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said of the state’s efforts. “But the whole rush to open, my biggest concern was that people’s lives didn’t seem to be the priority over livelihood.”

<strong>Antonio Parkinson</strong>

Antonio Parkinson

Parkinson believes the governor’s administration needs to be prepared for yet another surge when schools open.

Lee reopened the economy in phases, hoping to return people to work to bolster moribund state revenue while keeping an eye on COVID-19 cases.

In some instances, he has taken new steps amid a viral surge, though – again – they’ve been voluntary.

“COVID-19 is a serious public health pandemic that is present in our state, that is a real health crisis,” Lee said. “People are losing their lives as a result of this virus, and we should take it seriously.”

He recently gave mayors in 89 counties, those without independent health departments, the authority to mandate masks in public to stem the spread. Mayors in Williamson and Sumner counties responded with their own orders.

The governor also extended a state of emergency through August, enabling more health care workers to enter the system. In addition, he allowed local governments to continue holding virtual meetings.

But Parkinson believes the move to reopen the economies in counties surrounding the state’s big four counties was a “shrewd and strategic” decision designed to force those larger counties to open to keep from losing revenue to their surrounding counties.

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“Now you’ve got this rush to open and we’re seeing the chickens coming home to roost and the fact that there was no statewide mandate on opening and closing the entire state as a unit. Or requiring masks as a unit,” Parkinson says. “It is just a micro-version of what is happening at the national level, and it’s unfortunate.”

Tennessee is edging closer to states such as Texas, Florida and California for case counts and is on a travel advisory list for other states such as New York.

Others question whether voluntary orders at this point are too little too late to catch up, with the state seeming to be three to four weeks behind in controlling COVID-19, about the amount of time it takes for a person to get sick and succumb to the virus.

“The state response started out well enough, but it’s clear now that the governor reopened the economy too quickly without a statewide strategy to contain the virus,” said state Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat who wore a plastic face shield to protect herself during the June legislative session. “And, as a result, a record number of Tennesseans are getting sick, lying in hospital beds and dying.

<strong>Sara Kyle</strong>

Sara Kyle

“Without a statewide containment plan that includes both rapid testing and aggressive contact tracing, the virus has resurged and erased everything our families and businesses sacrificed in the shutdown.”

Throughout the pandemic, Shelby County has taken more drastic action than most other counties, including recently shutting down bars considered a breeding ground for the virus.

Still, Shelby has seen 15,730 positive or likely positive cases out of 155,171 tested, with 8,521 recovered and 219 deaths. Metro Nashville, which took similar steps with mask requirements and bar closings, has experienced 142 deaths in a resurgence of the coronavirus.

With the virus invading rural counties, too, the state added 1,605 cases July 10, bringing its total since early March to 57,591 with 3,088 hospitalized and 710 deaths. More than 33,600 people with the virus have recovered, and more than 972,000 have been tested.

Lee has boasted about statewide testing efforts, saying Tennessee is among the best in the nation. Yet while Democratic lawmakers have said the state needs to meet guidelines calling for 2,000 contact tracers, the state has about half that number.

Kyle contends contact tracers could have been hired and trained in April and May, but that didn’t happen – “a failure that is costing lives today,” she said.

Campuses moving toward opening with reams of safety protocols

She also pointed out the state hasn’t offered financial support, either, for those who might need to quarantine themselves away from family members to keep from passing the virus to them.

A strong tracing program would lead to cash assistance for hotel rooms to keep family members apart, she says.

Instead, the state’s emphasis has been on testing, which worked until delays in getting results started cropping up recently, but a strong testing program was “never enough to contain the virus by itself,” Kyle says.

Health Department Commissioner Piercey acknowledged the turnaround time for test results is a “national issue,” with delays of seven to 12 days keeping patients from learning whether they’re infected soon enough. Labs are prioritizing results for health care workers and those with bad cases of symptoms, pushing back those who are asymptomatic, Piercey said.

“It’s going to take some time to catch up with that demand,” Piercey said. “Every single lab in the state and in the nation is getting to being maxed out.”

The state is monitoring those turnaround times to determine which labs return results the quickest. Yet, during that time frame, people who are positive but not showing signs of illness can spread the virus to others.

At mid-week, the state had 750 hospitalized patients, mainly in the Memphis and Nashville areas but seeing increases in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Jackson and Tri-Cities, Piercey said.

Still, “Nobody’s in any type of critical need right now” as far as hospital space, Piercey noted.

Nashville and Memphis have facilities for hospital expansion, and Shelby hospital officials are enacting a surge plan to care for the increasing numbers of patients.

Staffing could be a problem, though, Piercey said, and the Lee Administration was supposed to discuss the matter with Memphis officials last week. Health Department spokesman Bill Christian could not provide details Friday but said the state is “committed to assisting” hospitals with surge planning and expanding capacity. If necessary, Memphis patients would be cared for in its alternate site, he added.

More than 90% of ICU beds in use in regional hospitals

As of July 9, 90% of acute care and 87% of intensive care unit hospital beds in Shelby County were being used, according to the state’s Health Resource Tracking System, with 317 people hospitalized for coronavirus.

Only 13.5% of patients in those acute care beds are COVID-19 positive or under investigation for the virus, while 32.2% of patients in ICU beds are positive for the virus or under investigation, a Daily Memphian report shows.

For weeks, Lee spoke daily with the media about COVID-19, but he has dialed that back to once or twice a week lately.

The governor says he is keeping tabs on the Tennessee Hospital Association regarding capacity in every region and meeting daily with his unified command group to monitor data. But he said the public needs to “buy in” to the seriousness of the disease and the need to avoid it.

Reopening schools, allowing bars to operate and helping the economy grow means taking precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and staying home when feeling ill, Lee said.

“We flattened the curve. We can flatten it again.”


Bill Lee Lisa Piercey Antonio Parkinson Sara Kyle
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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