Lee Nov. 17

Tennessee could start distributing limited amounts of coronavirus vaccine as soon as December.

This is a summary of a press conference held Tuesday by Gov. Bill Lee.


There are difficult weeks ahead. Cases are climbing across states, with overcrowded hospitals. People are inside more.

I am especially this week in light of where we are in the pandemic, asking Tennesseans to stop and think. Make good, common-sense decisions. Think about gatherings with family. Holiday choices this year should look different.

The Lee family will not gather for an extended family dinner at the farm for the first time in my life. My mom is 87.

It is a season of common sense. It can still be the most wonderful time of the year.

It is the state’s responsibility to provide infrastructure.

For testing, we have extended availability this weekend and the Monday before Thanksgiving.

We continue to partner directly with hospitals. It is important to have enough staff and beds. If you are a retired healthcare worker, we encourage you to reach out to the Tennessee Department of Health to help.

Three pharmaceutical companies are drawing close on a vaccine.

Thank you to Pfizer for choosing Tennessee as one of four pilot states to distribute a vaccine. This is because of our ability to build out an infrastructure. Our state is ready to receive what will be limited supplies of vaccine in December.

There will be limited quantities to start with. Starting in the spring, there will be more.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, TDH:

We continue to see record numbers of cases and hospitalizations. October was most ever, and November is on track to exceed that.

We have daily positivity rates in the double digits. The 7-day average is 13.9 percent. To have control of the virus, we want the number in the 5 percent or less range.

The high positive rates tell us people are not getting tested. We cannot control the spread of the virus if we do not know who has it. Please get tested if you think you get exposed.

Hospital capacity is decreasing. COVID accounts for 20 percent of all in-patient beds.

Hospital staffing is strained.

It is imperative we take responsibility for our own actions.

Vaccines: Pfizer and Moderna have released positive information. The actual data has not been published, but it is in excess of 90 percent efficacy. We believe the work over the last nine months has produced a safe vaccine that will not need state approval. Once the FDA has all the information, it will take up to a few weeks to make a decision. After that, states could get it within 24 hours. Once we have it, we will use our distribution plan, which is on our website.

This initially will not be widely available. Healthcare workers and first responders, especially high-risk members of those groups. Dec. 1 is our goal to distribute. More vaccine will be available in the spring. The vaccine must be kept cold in storage.

On Thursday, Nov. 19, TDH will host the Fight the Flu event with free shots any age 6 months or older in every county.

On Monday, Nov. 23, we will host extended hours for free COVID testing across the state. You will get results within 48 hours. Our local offices will be closed over the holidays.


As more cases come, will you consider a mask mandate?

Lee: We talk about masks every day. Wearing a mask is one of the most important personal decisions people can make. We have a strategy to get people to wear a mask. Eighty percent of Tennesseans wear a mask most or all of the time, according to a study.

Q: Will you ever consider a mandate?

Lee: Nothing is ever off the table.

Q: What would you say to people…you are preaching personal responsibility. To people who wonder if this gets worse, how can you assure them it will not be a real crisis, can you assure them it will not get to that point?

Lee: This is a real crisis. That is the reason Tennesseans should strongly consider what they do personally. The state has a response to that crisis as well. That is why we offer increased testing and funding for healthcare workers. That is why we are developing distribution for a vaccine.

Q: Will you go to the Republican retreat Thursday?

Lee: Like every event I go to, I will wear a mask.          

Q for Piercey on hospital staffing: Where is the state?

Piercey: Capacity is mostly about staffing. Physical space is not the issue. One thing we did to possibly expand is deregulation by an executive order. We got the first two plans; they are creative. Hospitals know how to manage their capacity better than we do. Hospitals are still able to surge within their facilities. We have sites in Memphis and Nashville if they are needed, but they would need staff.

Q on positivity rate.

Piercey: 13.9 was on this week’s White House report. That may be different from our data; the White House has a time lag.

Q: You mentioned special accommodations to get results in 48 hours.

Piercey: It will work if all the pieces work. We don’t know how to predict demand for Monday. We talked to labs to alert them they may get more tests and ask if they can reserve capacity. They agreed. If a large number of people show up, that will slow results.

Q to Lee: You made your position clear again on a mask mandate. What about business rules like in Nashville? Across the state, businesses are not required to change anything. Is it time to change that?

Lee: What we know about the virus…the spread is happening not as a result of businesses but more from small gatherings in people’s homes. Closing businesses…is not a good idea. These pandemic hurts livelihoods. We are going on the information we have.

Q: 63 times the number of cases were reported yesterday versus when you limited gatherings. Will you limit gatherings of 10 or more?

Lee: We know more about this virus now versus then. You cannot look at one day’s numbers.

Q: Whare are the difficult decision on the horizon you mentioned?

Lee: What to do when hospital surge capacity is filled. What elective surgeries will have to be eliminated. Who gets the vaccine when it first comes out? There is a surge capacity in every provider, and they have not had to activate their plans. We are not there yet. At the current trajectory, we will get there, but it is impossible to predict when.

Piercey: That is a hard number to give. Hospitalizations fluctuate by the minute. We look at it by 24 hours. Also, the surge capacity numbers are in a perfect state, if all the workforce comes to work. We do not know how many healthcare workers are sick or in quarantine. We know it is around 15 percent hospital beds. It comes down to how many healthcare workers are healthy and on the job. In addition to flu and COVID, we have the risk of burnout.

Q: You said you implore people to get tested. How often and even if they feel well?

Piercey: I do not advocate for people feeling well to get tested. The test is a snapshot.

Piercey: Our lab system was built to run a few thousand tests a day, but we are doing tens of thousands a day. You see more frequent slowdowns and delayed data. For the last 2-3 weekends we shut out all the users over the weekend; that means the front part of the week is larger.

Q to Lee on difficult decisions to face: You canceled your large Thanksgiving gathering but last week, you held a large fundraiser. Would you do that again?

Lee: Every gathering is different. That was outdoors and spread apart so people could social-distance. That is different from 45 people in my mother’s house for two hours.

Q: Tennessee has not canceled all gatherings. People are still lost on what to do. For a family having 10 gather indoors, is that safe?

Lee: We are not going to mandate how a family gathers at Thanksgiving. What we will do is encourage people to think about that.

Q about Human Services: The P-EBT program gave cards to school districts. The department set a 30-day limit for distribution. The money is valid for nearly another year; is that the right move?

Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes: I have been proud how the department has handled the program. We had no guidance from the federal government. Tennessee is getting national attention. The 30 days: we were clear on integrity for this program. We did a lot of outreach. We still tried to reach families. We cannot have cards lingering for an indefinite period of time.

Q to Lee: Given high case counts, keeping schools open is less of a reality. Are you willing to have more restrictions to keep kids in schools and limiting restaurant capacity or sports?

Lee: It is important kids are in school. We sent PPE to every classroom. Fewer than 1 percent of schools at one time were closed or partially closed.

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