The state government is making it easier for retired medical workers to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he signed Executive Order 20 to loosen restrictions on retired medical workers such as suspending continuing education requirements. The order also allows for assessing mentally ill patients over the phone and for licensed providers to use telemedicine.

A reporter asked Lee about other areas where health care workers without personal protective equipment (PPEs) are forced to convert items like diapers and bandanas. “Is that acceptable,” he was asked. Lee said Tennessee health care workers are not having to use such items.

He did, however, have someone act as a model to show off a homemade gown made with moisture-repellent material donated by home improvement store Lowe’s. Inmates are making the gowns. Those homemade gowns will be used only if normal medical gowns are depleted, he said. Lee said the state is staying ahead on getting supplies.

Lee was asked why shelter-at-home is not appropriate. He said he commended the Tennessee cities that have ordered that, and he would know if a statewide order is necessary based on data and evidence if those become available.

The state is launching a public service announcement campaign using celebrities to promote social distancing.

Lee said there has been a backlog in test results coming back. The state is ramping up its ability to respond. More tests are being done, meaning turnaround time is slower. New technologies are coming out Monday to allow results in 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Dr. Lisa Piercey of the Tennessee Department of Health said that for high priority tests like health care workers, hospital patients and people in “cluster” areas, the state lab can process results in 24 hours.

A reporter mentioned Nashville has test sites but lacks test equipment. Lee said there are “spots” statewide struggling with supplies.

Earlier in the day, Lee spoke to community newspaper reporters whose organizations are members of the Tennessee Press Association.

He called on Tennesseans to take personal responsibility for their actions and follow social distancing guidelines.

 “This is not something to be afraid of, but something to be aware of,” Lee said. “Terms like social distancing are incredibly important to understand.”

Lee said most counties now have confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease.

“It’s going to likely end up in every corner of our state,” he said. “The degree depends on how seriously Tennesseans heed the advice.”

The state launched a public service announcement campaign with celebrities Tennesseans know to share the importance of social distancing.

The governor touted steps his administration has taken, including setting up “the COVID-19 Unified Command,” a committee involving Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, the Tennessee Health Department and the Tennessee Military Department. Stuart McWhorter, commissioner of the Department of Finance and Administration, will leave that job to head up the committee.

Lee said that the state has not had the capacity to test every resident for the disease, and that if everyone had been tested today, officials would know how many are infected. He said he is encouraged by the “ramp up” for new testing centers and lab capacity.

On Thursday, 250 soldiers and airmen from the Tennessee National Guard deployed to serve at testing centers around the state, including 150 with medical training. Lee said he also toured a supply distribution center where the Guards are now sending out personal protective equipment (PPEs) to communities. A total of 81 percent of those supplies went to rural counties.

Lee addressed the state’s record unemployment rate.

For the week ending March 21, Tennesseans filed 39,096 initial claims for unemployment insurance benefits, the Department of Labor & Workforce Development said Thursday. The week prior, the state received 2,702 new unemployment claims. The latest figure represents a nearly 20-fold increase in week-to-week claims.

The newly approved state budget provides $200 million in grants for county and city governments to fight the disease, Lee said.

“Never before have we seen the daily filings for unemployment,” he said. “Every day sets a new record. We are in an incredible downturn in our economy.”

Lee said he will not rule out a stay-at-home order and would base the decision by balancing the economic impact vs. the spread of the virus.

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