Governor Bill Lee sat down with Nashville’s Morning News host Brian Wilson on 99.7 WTN Thursday to discuss his response to the coronavirus pandemic, and his criteria to lifting the sweeping Stay-at-Home order.
Wilson: I’ve been wanting to talk to you because, first of all, I want you to know that you’ve had my prayers. And I know you’ve had the prayers of many Americans right now and many Tennesseans for the wisdom to make good decisions. My lord, the decisions that you’ve had to make I wouldn’t wish on anybody. On one hand, you have this desire to preserve life.
You and I both agree every life is precious. On the other hand, you’ve had to try to make decisions and balance that by preserving that and our way of life and our livelihood. Its got to be a very difficult position to be in where you have to decide between life or livelihoods. How have you been guided in making those decisions?
Lee: Yes. I appreciate you saying that, Brian. I would add one thing to that, too. Your balance between political life and health and people that we’ve lost 70 -something Tennessee to this COVID-19 and livelihood. Which is people’s ability to make a living. We’ve had 250,000 unemployment claims in the last three weeks.
But also you balance livelihood or way of life with regard to the way of personal freedom and liberty and not imposing too much from a government standpoint on people’s lives. That’s something that’s very important to me too. There is a balance of all three of those. And it is grueling sometimes to make those decisions. I certainly appreciate your prayers. I do believe the prayers of the righteous accomplish much.
When people say they are praying for me, and I ask people too to pray for this state and nation. It’s a very interesting time we are in. A lot of very difficult decisions. A lot of political considerations you just totally pushed aside and you start thinking about what’s best for Tennesseans for really really serious issues. It’s been certainly a really different three or four weeks of my job. I’m honored to be in it. It’s a challenge. But it’s an honor to do it.
Wilson: More tough decisions ahead for you.
Wilson: Right now as things stand, April 14 is when the stay in place order and non-essential closings will expire. I know you’ve been asked this over the last few days. And I know you are reserving the right to make a judgment at the last minute based on the best information available. And the information changes, by the way, each and every day.
I would like the benefit of your thinking. I’m hearing from people all the time. When can we go back to work? When will it be OK to come out? When can we start to return our lives to normal? And what will that look like? What kind of advice about your thinking can you give us on that?
Lee: The way that I’m looking at this. I talk to a lot of governors across the country all the time. And we all talk about how hard this is and how we are looking at it because we want to make the right decisions. In the same way that we imposed after another after another and I tried to be very measured about that. Very data-driven about it.
My background is in engineering. And I’m kind of a person that likes to put together all their information that you know before you take the next step because that’s really how you solve the problem. The same way will be a harder decision of how to open back up.
Because if you think about it, if you just say everything is done and you go back to normal. You’re basically in the same situation you were in four weeks ago because most of the people in this state haven’t had this virus. Most of them have not got immunity to it. You have the same vast amount of population that goes right back to the same situation before. And you have another surge and you’d have another problem. So you can’t do that.
But, we’ve got to go back to work and we’ve got to open up.
Lee: The majority of our people are working. Non-essential businesses are the minority of those. But people are staying at home and doing what they are supposed to. That’s the reason why we’ve had such a limited spread of this thing across the state.
Wilson: Can I ask you about that? I’m repeating what I hear from other people. I’m sort of in this position where a lot of people are talking to me. I reach out to them. I stay in touch on social media. And they have questions for you. How reliable has the data been, number one? And number two, what is the point of the data curve if you still believe the data is accurate or are accurate. What point do you say OK, now, now I would feel better about people going back to work?
Lee: Yeah. Well for me it’s three things. Some data is very very reliable. We do know about the number of new cases that we have every day. But think about this. That’s only as good as the number of tests that you have. We are one of the leading states in the country for testing. We were one of the first five states to test.
I believed from day one that testing is the very most important thing you can do because it actually tells you something. We’re not just guessing about this. But the number of cases and the rate at which they increase is real data. We know that for sure. We also know the number of hospitalizations that we have.
We know the number of recovered cases. And we know the number of active cases. So all those things we know. We know a whole lot more about those things if we ramp up our testing. Which is why I’m working every day. We’re doing about 5,000 tests a day. I told our team we need to be doing about 10,000 tests a day.
As soon as these rapid tests get online, we need to move toward a broad scale testing because then you really do know exactly what’s happening. Until then, there are three things I think have to happen. (1) One is you have to have a downward trend or stabilizing of all those numbers [new cases, hospitalizations] so that you have peak and started back down. That needs to happen. And you know what? There are parts of those numbers for which that is true. So we’re watching them every day.
The other thing you have to make sure that you do have testing so that when people do start moving back around if they have any idea that they have this virus then they need to get tested and turn it around and we contact trace. (2) And you’ve got to have a lot of testing to turn it back around. (3) And you’ve got to have plenty of bed capacity and PPE capacity and surge capacity. Because even if the surge isn’t what it used to be you still have to have capacity. And if we open up a little and things tick back up, we’ve got to be able to handle that. (emphasis added)
Wilson: A lot of people, and I’ve heard this and I know you’ve heard it as well. They don’t believe that the thing is real. It’s no worse than the flu. And they don’t believe it got better simply because we employed social distancing. They believe that it was never going to be this bad and that the data were faulty. And I just want to give you an opportunity to directly address people who hold that position. It’s not one that I hold but I know there are a lot of people out there that do hold it.
Lee: Let me just say that there are a lot of things about it we won’t know until it’s over. Until there is a vaccine and people don’t get it anymore we’re not going to know everything about it. There are some things that you do have to keep in mind. I understand that feeling. Hey, we lost 30,000 people to the flu in the hunted states and we’ve only lost last year or two years ago we’ve only lost 15,000 to the coronavirus. That’s true.
But you also have to say, we shut the country down and lost 15,000. And there are somethings that we know are true and that you are three times more likely to contract it. That’s science there. And it’s much more easily contracted than the flu and it’s about three times more deadly than the flu, about three times more people die. If we just let it run through society without doing anything, we’d clearly have a lot more people dying. Now is it all a result of our social distancing? No one will ever know that. Because we get it and you can say it was or was not. I do think from my decision-making process I was very slow to move to a complete social distancing policy.
As you know we were one of the last states to do it. I think if you are going to do something like that then you ought to do it so you can keep your economy somewhat moving. I do think if we had done nothing in this country and didn’t approach social distancing, there is no doubt that more people would have gotten it and a lot more people would have died. Now how many? I got some estimates on the front end and I said, that can’t be true, that’s not going to happen. I was very concerned about high numbers happening. At the end of the day, I personally feel a great deal of responsibility for making the right decision to save people’s lives. I also feel a huge responsibility for the economic disaster that can happen in a family’s life when the guy coming home making the paycheck is not coming home with a paycheck anymore. If you’re a small business owner that’s devastating happen to people.
Wilson: I can imagine. Right now as it stands your order would lift if nothing else is done on the 14. According to the latest projections and you can take them with a grain of salt some people say. The peak in Tennessee would come about some four days later. So given that data, if you had to make the decision today, where would you lean? I know that’s a tough thing to say. And the data can change but I’m not going to hold you to it.
People really need to know. Do we draw anything from the fact that you extended the non-essential surgery, the elective surgery all the way through the end of the month? Is that part of your thinking that may give us some guidance of where you may go in the future?
Lee: The non-essential surgery piece is tied to personal protective equipment. That part, remember there are three buckets. Capacity, which is PPE and hospital beds and the healthcare capacity. And then there are the numbers and the direction they take and for how long.
So you have to have somewhat of a downward trend in the numbers to know that you are over the hump. And then widespread testing. Whether all three of those things point to that they’re in the right position by next Monday. It’s very hard to say that.
Because it does happen very quickly. If they are not all there by next Monday at the very least we will announce a plan of when we are going to do what. So I don’t want to make any predictions about Monday because things change so quickly. You saw that even in modeling.
Lee: The models change about every three days. The good news is the models have gone down. Probably in part because of the things that were imposed. You can’t completely connect those two. I’m a data-driven person. I’m going to make decisions when I see information that substantiates a decision.
Because these are major decisions that impact people’s lives in a huge way. I will be looking for all that. If those things have come together by Monday then we’ll make a decision about beginning to open back up. I want to do it as soon as possible and yet protect the safety of Tennesseans. That’s how I’m trying to look at this.
Wilson: And then very quickly. We’ve seen that the state has had some difficulty in making the adjustment to provide the extra $600 that the feds provided for people who have filed for unemployment so you get your $275 and $600 extra a week. That has been slow and coming. I know you’ve been overwhelmed. You went from a situation where you had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country to having hundreds and thousands of people filing for unemployment. How soon can you get that under control? People want to know.
Lee: You are right. It’s really too bad that we haven’t been able to stay right on top of that. As you know, we went from about 10,000 claims over a three week period of time to about 250,000 claims. So we had 25 times more people calling in and filing for unemployment.
We went from 200 people answering those calls and servicing them and we were doing a really good job. We are up to about 250 in a week. We ramped up from 200 people to 250. We also have an IT system that was not set up to make 250,000 calls. So we are making adjustments to that this week. I think very soon we are going to have wait times and processing times and we and we have already by the way issued 100,000 claims. So there are big numbers going out the door. One of the things I want to say to folks is if you filed a claim, calling back to check on the status of it…
Wilson: Doesn’t help.
Lee: It just makes it more and more difficult. If you filed you’re going to get it. And both your federal and state money is going to come when that federal money is distributed. I’m talking to every department in the state every day and looking at wait times and call times. And numbers of people and trying to serve Tennesseans the best we can. It’s tough but we’re getting there. And we think within just a few days we’ll be back in a pretty good spot.
Wilson: I promise to have you out of here in just a minute or two. I want to give you an opportunity to maybe touch on anything I haven’t thought of that maybe you think is important.
Lee: I appreciate you having me on. This has been one of the most challenging and interesting three or four weeks. The decisions that are made have been very difficult because they do impact people so heavily. I bare that and I carry that. I care so much about our state and our people that I really do want to make those right decisions.
And there is a lot that is unknown about this. And rightfully so, people are scared, people are anxious, they get angry. I found that whatever decision I make there is a lot of people around the world thinks it’s not the right decision. It feels a little bit like you’re in a tough spot either way you go. That’s fine with me. Every day I’m trying to say what is best for Tennessee. So that when it’s done we will see a better outcome on the other side and if we hadn’t made exactly the right decision at the right time. I want us to open back up.
I want people to be able to move around again. I want us to get beyond the storm that I’ve talked about many times. And we will. I have a great deal of hope that we are going to get there. I know we’ll get there. I see the numbers. I see what’s happening. I do think for a while that that life is not going to go right back to normal until we actually. It’s there. We have to consider it. We have to move through it. I will say this to folks that are anxious to start moving around again get going.
There is no doubt that what we’ve done has helped and has held this thing and slowed its spread. And it’s getting us to a point that we can think about opening back up. If people had not stayed at home and done their part and followed this guidance then we wouldn’t be here where we’re talking about what’s next. We have some more days to go on this. So kind of doubling down on staying home. Finishing strong. Making sure we actually can get to a place where we start opening up. That’s what’s important for people to hear.
Listen to the full segment here.
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Photo “Bill Lee” by Bill Lee.