State Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, wears a mask during House floor proceedings in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, March 19, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

All 30 legislative members of the Tennessee Democratic Caucus want Gov. Bill Lee to quickly develop and make available a comprehensive, statewide plan for battling the COVID-19 outbreak.

Caucus members detailed their collective position in a letter that was sent to Lee this week.

“We are slow in getting the equipment we need for the coronavirus,” said Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-86). “We are calling on the governor to please set out a clear, well-coordinated plan for the state. …We want our constituents to know that we are doing everything we possibly can.”

The Democrats asked Lee to “ensure that local health departments, hospitals, healthcare providers, businesses, and citizens are working together to effect a coherent, state-wide plan.” They want the proposed plan placed online with daily updates so that “citizens can fully trust that the work is being done.”

Ventilators, gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by healthcare workers reportedly are in short supply around the state, particularly in Middle Tennessee where the outbreak has been especially heinous.


 


“I suggested before the (Tennessee General Assembly’s) recess that a legislative oversight committee or task force be appointed, but that was not done,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-93), chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “And for the emergency budget, I proposed an amendment to allocate $7.5 million for PPE, and that wasn’t done.

“We’re sending our healthcare workers on the front lines without enough protection. They are fighting a war with no bullets. We’ve got to find a way to get them what they need.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-98), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said there had been no response from the governor to the letter.

The New Tri-State Defender reached out to Lee’s office and had not received comment by the deadline for this account. In the daily bulletin from the governor’s office regarding the COVID-19 response in Tennessee, it was noted that on Thursday he had “signed Executive Order 20 to ensure Tennessee can further mobilize health care workers to fight COVID-19.”

According to that daily bulletin, the executive order does, among other things, this:

  • Loosens restrictions around retired medical professionals to help get qualified individuals back in the workforce.
  • Temporarily suspends continuing education requirements so professionals can continue working through the pandemic.
  • Calls for the availability of phone assessments for individuals with mental illness or emotional disturbances.
  • Expands telemedicine efforts so that all licensed providers may utilize telemedicine during COVID-19 as long as they are practicing within their normal scope of practice.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson

Parkinson said if Medicaid had been expanded in Tennessee, “300,000 Tennesseans would have had health insurance and access to care, which would have helped to keep the spread of COVID-19 down. …”

House and Senate Democrats, he said, also asked through budget amendments to use $100 million to keep small businesses from failing, while additionally providing the unemployment relief so needed by our people.”

Testing may be the biggest hurdle, said Parkinson, remarking that the numbers of infected in the state was growing exponentially almost every day.

“People are being tested and sent home. However, it takes days for the results to get back and for the tested to know their status. …The labs are backed up with tests that need testing. The fact that the individual who was tested has now been sent home and not to a place where he or she can be quarantined puts the rest of the population at risk for at least the amount of days before they hear what their results are.

“This makes it extremely difficult to flatten the curve of the amount of people that are infected with the coronavirus.”

Parkinson also said there has been little – or no – leadership applied to “assuring or directing companies that manufacture medical supplies to supply Tennessee citizens and healthcare first.

“Some of these companies are selling medical supplies to countries overseas. This is extremely problematic as there is a shortage of medical supplies right here in Tennessee.”

Democrats did commend Lee for his “personal leadership” in holding daily press briefings and executive orders. However, the urgency of community spread in regions across the state requires more, their letter says.

Rep. Mark White (Twitter)

Republican State Rep. Mark White, whose district (83) takes in Bartlett, Cordova, Germantown, Bartlett and a share of East Memphis, said, “I applaud Gov. Lee’s leadership in closing the schools, moving the return date from April 6 to April 24. Our 147 school districts are going to online learning while we’re home. I thought that was a great call.”

White said the medical supply shortages present a great challenge.

“I received a call just today from a nursing home in my district,” he said. “They are in short supply of PPE. There is such a great demand everywhere. I believe in a week or so, we will have caught up to the need with these badly needed supplies. We just never saw this coming. No one did.”

White, who chairs the House Education Committee, said that as a former business owner he has been “concerned not only about those who are ill, but also about the job loss. …

“We must not forget the hourly worker as we address the pandemic. Our mayor has directed us to stay home for two weeks, and those of us who can should do so”

Hardaway said that even beyond the Democrats’ letter, he was particularly concerned about economics, healthcare and education.

“We were left in pretty bad shape back in 2008 (during the ‘Great Recession’). We lost wealth. When we have gotten through this, where is our community going to be? We need a vision for the long-term. If we don’t know where we are, we won’t know where we’re going.”


Tn. Democrats’ letter to Gov. Bill Lee

(TSD Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku contributed to this report.)