Frontline medical workers tested drivers in Rutherford County last weekend. The free testing will continue at least until mid-May. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — In a move in keeping with President Trump’s plan to re-open the economy, Governor Bill Lee is ending the statewide Stay-at-Home order. He announced plans Monday to re-open some businesses as early as next week. Most others will re-open by May 1. He announced some state parks will re-open Friday, April 25.

“It will be phased; it will be smart; it will be strategic and we’re making sure primarily that the health and safety of Tennesseans is put first,” Lee said. 

Mayor John Cooper announced his own 4-phase plan to end the Nashville’s Stay-at-Home order sometime in early May. He said the timing depends on a transmission rate of less than 1, two-week downward trend in new cases of COVID-19, adequate testing and enough PPEs, and a robust infrastructure in place to do contact tracing of new cases. 

“A phased approach also prevents our hospital from becoming overburdened in the event of a spike in cases,” Cooper said. The Governor said he would release details of his plan Thursday, April 23.  

Cooper said Metro’s plan will be based on science and data. “A balanced approach is essential in re-opening our economy and cannot come at the cost of all our hard earned progress in flattening the curve of COVID-19. Your efforts will largely determine the end of the safer at home order,” Cooper said.

Lee said the economic shutdown cannot continue but he also said social distancing must. He said Tennessee has had single digit increases in new cases for 17 days in a row.  He said the hospitalization rate is lower than the national average, and for the first time, the number or recovered patients now exceeds the number of active cases.

In addition, Lee said the state spent $82 million on 35 million pieces of medical supplies.  “We continue to flatten the curve in Tennessee from one end of our state to the other. Tennesseans have done what we asked them to do. And we thank you,” Lee said.

More than 100,000 tests have been given, 7,394 were positive, and 157 people have died. A 7% infection rate is high but since most people tested were already sick, the rate may be skewed higher than it really is. 

Last weekend and for the next couple of weekends, free drive-by testing will be offered around the state at local health departments. Six urban counties, including Davidson County, have their own health departments, and in Nashville residents are still being asked to get screened before they get tested. 

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 150 state workers have been reassigned to help with contact tracing until the end of June.  Last weekend’s drive-by testing found 45 new cases in Rutherford County; Dickson County had four. Lee made his announcement to re-open businesses after just two days of random testing of the general population.

Members of the Democratic Caucus held a remote press conference this week, and slammed Lee for making a hasty and risky decision. 

“I believe the Governor should listen to science rather than an arbitrary number on a calendar,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie. “We putting out the fire but there is still an ember glowing at this moment and if we don’t put this fire out completely it will flare out of control completely.”

Dixie said putting people back to work too soon will put vulnerable frontline workers at risk. “They’re the ones we are trying to protect,” he said. 

Rep. John Ray Clemmons said the Governor decided to end the stay-at-home order  after listening to the White House and members of the Southeast Governors Association.  “There will be a second wave. It’s only a matter of when and how bad it will be,” Clemmons said.

As many experts have warned, Rep. Darren Jernigan fears a resurgence of the pandemic. “The numbers are on the rise in rural Tennessee and across the nation. Until we have more testing, to lift this stay at home may be jumping ahead of ourselves,” Jernigan said.

“I think if we lift this you’re probably see three weeks of everything still being okay and after three weeks or so, you’ll start to see emergency rooms and hospitals spike right back up again and we’ll be right back where we were.”

Earlier at Cooper’s press conference Tuesday, Dr. James Hildreth, President of Meharry Medical College, noted that more testing in Nashville showed an increase in the percent of people testing positive and that the rate of infection could be increasing. 

“That gives us some pause,” Hildreth said.  “But as a scientist and a physician I am comforted, my anxiety is less because we have a mayor who has decided to make  decisions based on science and data rather than dates. Viruses do not respect dates. They are relentless pathogens who find a host, infect them, and move on to the next host.” 

“It doesn’t serve any purpose to let politics sway what we say and the decisions we take and I have a fear that is part of our challenge up to this point,” Hildreth said.