White House COVID-19 task force leader Deborah Birx was in Nashville Monday to discuss what Gov. Bill Lee framed as Tennessee's continued strategies for fighting COVID-19. (Photo: Gov. Bill on Twitter)

by Kimberlee Kruesi —

NASHVILLE — Tennessee stands at the cusp at being able to significantly decrease new cases of the coronavirus and must take stronger steps to prevent its spread, warned White House COVID-19 task force leader Deborah Birx, who met with state and local health leaders Monday in Nashville.

Birx recently identified Nashville as one of 11 cities with a surge in coronavirus cases that need aggressive action while noting that many of the state’s rural areas have seen a worrisome outbreak.

“We’ve done a lot of modeling and we have found that if you all wear a mask — all Tennesseans — in every public area and you stop going to bars, and in fact close the bars,and limit your indoor dining, that we can have as big of an impact on decreasing new cases as we had with sheltering in place,” Birx told reporters.

“Tennessee is at that inflection point,” she said.

 

However, her remarks fell flat with Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has vowed he won’t shut down the state’s economy again and has resisted repeated calls to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“I’ve been to counties that have a mandate where people are not wearing masks as well,” Lee said shortly after Birx’s remarks. “People wear masks because they believe there is a reason to do so and I believe that they will increasingly understand that as their local officials advocate for that.”

“I appreciate their recommendations and we take them seriously,” Lee added, yet acknowledged that he had no plans to institute any further business restrictions as urged by Birx — who has stopped by Tennessee after recently visiting Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky to meet with local leaders about COVID-19.

Currently, health officials estimate that up to 70 percent of Tennessee’s 95 counties have implemented some sort of mask mandate.

Restaurants are barred from staying open past 10 p.m. in Nashville. In Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis, bars that don’t serve food are closed and restaurants have to close at 10 p.m.

According to the Shelby County Health Department, the total of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Shelby County was 19,166, with 402 new cases reported during the previous 24 hours. The number of deaths was 262, with no new deaths reported from the previous day. The daily positivity rate registered 13.4 percent, driving the overall rate to 10 percent – the level local health officials have said they wanted to stay below.

Meanwhile on Monday, a group of Tennessee doctors that has been pushing for stricter virus prevention measures continued their own call for a statewide mask mandate.

In a news conference, the doctors expressed hope that pressure from the White House would cause Lee to change his mind about masks.

“We need a mask mandate immediately and we need to delay the start of in-person classes to allow the mandate to work,” pulmonary and critical care physician Dr. Aaron Milstone said, citing the uncontrolled spread of the virus in Tennessee.

Otherwise, he said, the state must shut down again or just accept the fact that many more people are going to die.

In other virus news, Tennessee’s largest school district said Monday that it plans to start its school year Aug. 31 with a fully virtual learning program for students.

Shelby County Schools said in a news release that teachers will have the options to teach remotely or in classrooms, but all students will learn online at home until further notice.

Students will receive a digital device and “students will have live interaction with their teachers and peers every day as they follow the routine of a regular school day,” the news release said.

Schools will prepare meals and multiday meal packs will be available for pickup to reduce the number of times families have to come to campus, the district said.

The Shelby County school district has 100,000 students and about 15,000 employees. The county has reported more than 19,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 262 deaths.

Tennessee reported more than 2,500 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the state Monday, for a total of nearly 96,500.

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(Associated Press writers Adrian Sainz contributed from Memphis and Travis Loller contributed from Nashville.)

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(Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.)