Gov. Bill Lee during an earlier COVID-19 update visit to Memphis. (Photo: Screen capture)

by Adrian Sainz and Jonathan Mattise —

Gov. Bill Lee said Friday in Memphis that he expects a big jump in unemployment payouts to Tennessee residents under legislation passed by Congress for those who lost work to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lee told reporters he doesn’t know the exact amount of increase people will see in their payments. But he said Tennessee can expect $2 billion to $3 billion in overall aid under the federal COVID-19 legislation, including the unemployment boost.

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Tennessee is $275 before the deduction of federal taxes.

The state on Friday confirmed more than 1,200 cases of COVID-19, including six deaths. Local officials in Nashville reported more than 310 cases and officials in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, announced more than 210 confirmed cases.

Tennessee had 39,096 new unemployment claims during the week that ended Saturday. There were 2,702 during the week ending March 14.

Meanwhile, Tennessee is considering using rural hospitals that have shuttered or are close to doing so to help treat coronavirus cases if hospitals in Nashville or elsewhere become overwhelmed.

Stuart McWhorter, the leader of the state’s COVID-19 response team, said he spoke with Nashville Mayor John Cooper on Friday about how to prepare for the possibility of a surge that could overwhelm health care system resources. McWhorter said there are currently enough hospital beds, intensive care unit beds and ventilators.

“I think at this point, just knowing what we know, it’s going to be in these dense cities that are going to have the need,” McWhorter said in an interview. “Maybe it’s transporting the less severe cases to places in the rural parts of the state, where you have the more intensive patient at Vanderbilt (University Medical Center), for instance.”

Meanwhile, two positive coronavirus cases were found at a skilled nursing facility in Gallatin, where there has been a “cluster of respiratory illness” among residents and staff members, according to state Department of Health spokeswoman Shelley Walker. Test results for others are pending, the facility is cooperating and “aggressive infection control measures” have been put in place, Walker said.

The state declined to name the facility. Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing has previously confirmed there have been positive tests for COVID-19 at the center.

McWhorter said conversations have been ongoing about long-term care facilities where someone might test positive and people may need to be moved elsewhere.

“I think this particular case in Gallatin is going to be one of, likely and unfortunately, many that we see, just given the population,” McWhorter said.

Additionally, a group of doctors on Friday continued to call on Lee to issue an immediate stay-at-home order.

A group of more than 2,000 doctors and nurses has petitioned Lee for the stay-at-home order, saying they fear Tennessee’s health care system will be overwhelmed without it.

Lee has said he hasn’t ruled out the option, but on Friday cited the numerous city and county stay-at-home orders throughout Tennessee.

“Tennesseans have shut down,” Lee said. “This state is largely closed down except for the number of folks that are moving around for the appropriate reasons. Now, that’s not true of every Tennessean.”

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear had a direct message for Kentuckians living near the Tennessee border.

He noted that Kentucky has taken aggressive steps to limit the spread of the virus, such as shutting down bars and restaurants to dine-in services and temporarily closing such businesses as theaters, gyms and hair salons. He said “our neighbors from the south, in many instances, have not.”

Lee, however, has ordered the closure of Tennessee gyms, restricted restaurants and bars to drive-thru, delivery and takeout only and barred gatherings of more than 10 people.

“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than work or helping a loved one or maybe the grocery, if it is there closer. If you ultimately go down over that border and go to a restaurant or something that’s not open in Kentucky, what you do is you bring back the coronavirus here in Kentucky,” Beshear said. “And again the sacrifice that the people inside your county are making, ultimately you don’t honor by doing that.”

At FedEx, meanwhile, the company has started taking the temperature of people entering its Memphis hub after “a small number” of employees tested positive across the company’s facilities, said company spokesman Jim Masilak.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

(Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Bruce Schreiner contributed from Frankfort, Kentucky.)

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