Bill Lee March 24

All Tennessee public schools will remain closed through at least April 24 even as education leaders are partnering with PBS to deliver alternative learning options to homebound students.

There are 667 confirmed cases in Tennessee as of Tuesday, up from 615 on Monday. There are two deaths in the state.

Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn made the school announcement at a press conference Tuesday. Starting April 6, PBS will offer some television-based learning content produced in a partnership with the state, Schwinn said. They are working on radio versions also, she said, acknowledging some students do not have internet access at home.

Schwinn said some local districts are doing a great job in posting educational materials online or even asking law enforcement to deliver them to homes. Educators are holding ongoing conversations on how to help special needs students. The U.S. Department of Education is sending out guidelines, including for non-English-speaking students.

Lee said, “We want our kids to be able to continue to learn through the extension of the deadline.”

In other news, Lee said the Tennessee Army National Guard has deployed 250 personnel, including 150 who have medical training, to help at testing sites, mostly in rural communities. Those who have medical training are not being pulled out of civilian medical jobs.

Regarding coronavirus testing, one reporter asked why the state is not doing more to partner with private labs like in other states. Dr. Lisa Piercey, director of the Tennessee Department of Health, said TEMA has a group exploring such options.

Piercey also warned that while the rate of confirmed cases has started to level off in recent days, “don’t be falsely reassured, there will be a significant tick up.”

This is not a flattening of the curve, she said (that term means the shape of a bell curve graph showing the rate of new cases). As the demand for testing grows, the time for results to return will grow. Multiple private labs in the state process tests in addition to health departments. There are three major vendors which process many of the hospital tests. She said she hopes a new technology will come online Monday that will provide a 45-minute to one-hour turnaround.

More than 30 percent of the state’s hospital beds are still available, Piercey said, although she did not say how many beds total there are.

Another question dealt with how many Tennesseans have died or been hospitalized. Piercey said the two reported deaths at this time may not be all of them. It takes time for the medical examiners to process their findings, and death certificates to be issued. You may hear of more deaths before the state reports, but there is a significant verification process.

“So, you will see a lag there,” she said.

That is similar to reports of how may are hospitalized, Piercey said. Currently, 10 percent are hospitalized, which is lower than the national average because the state has a disproportionate number of younger people. She said she wanted to “call out” people ages 20-40 to “raise the bar on social distancing.” “You’re still at risk and you’re still putting others at risk.”

When asked what would make him issue a stay at home order, Lee said, he is starting to see the results of negative test results vs. how many are positive. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor, is working with Vanderbilt University Medical Center to create Tennessee-specific models for what the virus spread may look like, the types of communities and counties it spreads in, and so forth.

Lee said more than 11,000 people have tested negative in the state, Lee said.

Other topics

Lee acknowledged the unemployment rate will rise.

A reporter asked if Lee has looked at any impact on the upcoming elections and could they be run through mailed ballots or absentee voting. Lee said that is a decision for Secretary of State Tre Hargett. Lee said he had not spoken to Hargett about that.

Also, “We’ve had significant person protect equipment donations from companies,” including Lowe’s and construction businesses, Lee said. He acknowledged the cost to doctors and dentists, whom he effectively shut down except for emergency procedures.

“Together, we are going to do this,” Lee said.

State workers will continue to work from home when possible, through April 24.

President Donald Trump said yesterday he would extend date for REAL ID, Lee said. The state will not issue them until May 18.

Lee said he waived emission testing requirements through May 18.

“COVID-19 has severely impacted our economy … we are working hard to provide targeted relief and to help businesses and individuals,” Lee said, and indicated he told the Department of Revenue to delay the deadline for the filing of franchise and excise taxes until July 15.

The attorney general filed an emergency petition to ask the Public Utility Commission to prohibit utilities from disconnecting customers for nonpayment during the state of emergency.

Lee said he told the Department of Commerce and Insurance to give guidance to insurance providers to give policyholders flexibility to avoid canceling policies for nonpayment and extend grace periods.

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