Apr 14, 2020
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee COVID-19 Briefing Transcript
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held a press briefing on April 14. Read the full transcript of his updates.
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Bill Lee: (00:00)
… this area right now, there are a lot of lives being affected, but there were a lot of folks, agencies and organizations from private sector, nonprofit and government agencies that are on the ground working today. And their response has been impressive. The loss has been heartbreaking. And once again we’re challenged with a tragedy and a difficulty, but we’re prepared for that challenge and we will see this region through that challenge like we have in times past. I want to ask Mayor Coppinger to make remarks and Mayor Berke, as well. So, Mayor Coppinger…
Mayor Coppinger: (00:46)
Thank you, Governor. And we certainly want to say thank you for coming to Hamilton County and for touring and actually many of you saw today him going out and personalizing it by seeing many of the neighbors in the Holly Hills community. I want to begin by saying, we continue to grieve with the families. We had two fatalities. I want to say that all of the people in Hamilton County and state of Tennessee grieve with those families and we’ve pray for the people for a quick recovery that were hospitalized as a result of this incident. I know all of you joined me with that.
Mayor Coppinger: (01:24)
But I also want to say again, how important it is not only to have the governor here with his resources, but every single member of our Hamilton County delegation is present with us here today and that means a great deal. It shows you exactly how much they care about what’s going on in the community, whether they directly represent it or not. They want to see normalcy get back to our community as quickly as possible. I too, want to send out a special thank you to all of our first responders. We happen to believe that because of the readiness and preparedness for this type of an event we’ve been able to minimize the loss of life here and maybe even in some instances, property damage. So again, it’s really critical to say to all of the people that contributed in all of the different ways, thank you for what you’ve done.
Mayor Coppinger: (02:16)
As the governor mentioned, one of the things we know here in Hamilton County, in Chattanooga, that we do extremely well is public-private partnerships. The outpouring of the offers of contributions in many different ways, too many different ways to mention and from too many people to mention, has been phenomenal. And again, if you want to be able to contribute, there’s still a way to do that through our emergency operations center.
Mayor Coppinger: (02:43)
So, I’m just going to conclude because I want to be brief, to again say that, we’re very resilient here in Hamilton County. We’ve endured these types of events and other tragedies in the past and we will bounce back. We will overcome this. But again, to remember in our thoughts and prayers, those that were less fortunate that were impacted directly by this tragedy. Thank you.
Mayor Berke: (03:15)
So let me also say thanks, Governor, for being here. I know that basically within a few hours of yesterday morning, Governor Lee had called me, asked if there was anything else that he could do. And that wasn’t the first call I had gotten from a state official, and so appreciate you, Governor, for being so responsive. Our congressman called me around the same time, said he’d already talked to TEMA, and of course Mayor Coppinger and I as always, communicating consistently throughout the day. That feels really good. It feels good to have federal, state and local officials working together to solve these really complex problems for people in our community.
Mayor Berke: (03:54)
A couple of things that were heartening when we went out there today amid all the devastation, the very first homeowner that I talked to said that …. I was looking at his house and I said, “Where’d you sleep last night?” And he said, “I slept in my house. But tonight I’m going to go sleep at my father’s house because there was so much presence by police officers and everybody else out here that I feel like my stuff is secure.” That felt good to have a little bit of optimism and hope. Most everybody that you talk to out there recognizes the devastation that they face, but also seems like they’re already readying their plans to come back. That’s who we are.
Mayor Berke: (04:36)
This is a devastating moment, as every speaker has said. In the middle of telling people stay at home, we’ve seen somewhere north of a hundred structures destroyed in our community. That is very tough for people. And we know that everyone needs to be safe during this time. But I said this yesterday, ‘We are tough. We are resilient. Don’t mistake politeness for weakness.” Chattanoogans have seen event after event over these last five years, in particular. We will find our way through this one as well. We’re going to comfort those families that need our arms around them. We’re going to make sure that each and every person understands what we can do and how they can get to the other side.
Mayor Berke: (05:26)
There is humility in this incident. As I stand out there seeing the homes devastated, a lot of what I think about is what man can’t do. We just can’t build things that are strong enough to stand up to the winds and the Mother Nature. But there’s so much that we can do for each other, that’s what’s really important now. And I know that Chattanoogans will see us through to the other side. Thank you, Governor.
Bill Lee: (05:51)
Thank you. Thank you both. I want to add one additional comment before we go to questions. We talked about the responsive teams and the response of organizations and the support of the Lieutenant Governor and congressmen and mayors and the delegation. People that are actually out there on the front line, the first responders, the law enforcement officials that are out there right now. The health care workers that are treating not only COVID patients, but that are treating the injured as a result of this. Those are the folks that are doing the work that are actually a part of the organizations that we’re talking about.
Bill Lee: (06:42)
And I just want to say to them again, to law enforcement, to first responders, to healthcare workers, that are in the midst of crisis layered on top of crisis, thank you. We want to be incredibly supportive to the degree that we can, but all of those agencies and all of those folks that are helping take care of Tennesseans that are actually bringing hope in the midst of real struggles across our state. So thank you for that.
Bill Lee: (07:09)
I also have Patrick Sheehan, who’s with TEMA, here to answer any questions regarding TEMA’s response to this. So we would be happy to, and I’ve already introduced everyone up on stage, we’ll be happy to answer any questions. Yes.
Speaker 4: (07:29)
My first question is for the local mayors. What are some of the specific needs that you guys have from the state? And then for the governor, what are you guys doing to answer those?
Mayor Coppinger: (07:43)
The [inaudible 00:07:43] that relates to the special needs we have, the state’s been extremely responsive already, as was mentioned. The governor spoke for this yesterday morning to ask what our needs were. We immediately asked for personal protective equipment for our first responders and that was delivered. Again, the congressman made a phone call and helped us with that through FEMA, through FEMA, and down to us. But these types of requests that we’ve had to make to the governor have been extremely important. Going forward, those types of things will be important.
Mayor Coppinger: (08:13)
Also, this type of devastation is going to be extremely expensive to overcome, and as a result of that, TEMA’s on the ground, as was mentioned, working with FEMA, certainly working with Governor Lee and being able for us to meet the standard, or the goal. It’s not a goal, it’s an unfortunate tragedy, but there’s a certain amount of loss that we have to have. So they’re already looking at that, which is going to help us as it relates to grant money and reimbursements for a lot of expenses that the taxpayers of this county had to already spend, and will spend. That’s like right now the most important thing is, we asked the community, we don’t need any onlookers in that particular area. What we need are people that can make the assessments and so that we can get resources to all the people there.
Mayor Coppinger: (09:09)
I know I noticed in the walk-through with the governor after then, there’s quite a few insurance companies there that are already helping the residents in that location. But right now, it’s just about trying to provide resources. The essential needs. I didn’t mention, I should have mentioned, we have about 140 people that we had to put up in shelters, and those shelters happen to be, `with the help of the SpringHill Suites and Ooltewah and the Super 8 Hotel in Lookout Valley so, we’ll continue to need resources such as funding to be able to provide the needs to the citizens. And that would not be made possible just by local government. That is with the help of the state and federal agencies.
Mayor Berke: (09:55)
So Mayor, my daughter got a text from one of her friends staying in one of those hotels last night talking about what it was like to be there. I’ll just say everything that we need, the state is doing, which is not unusual. We see great cooperation. TEMA is making all of the assessments that they need to make, this declaration which the governor has talked about is going to be really important. And I think it does, I’ll sum up what Mayor Coppinger said a little bit more succinctly. Send money.
Bill Lee: (10:33)
Next question? Kimberly?
I was wondering if we could talk a little bit more about the challenge of dealing with a natural disaster and an pandemic? What are you doing with the folks on the ground who both, [inaudible 00:10:45] place to stay while also trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Bill Lee: (10:51)
Yeah, so one of the things we talked about on the ground today was the fact that we have such communication lines set up in the midst of this pandemic. For example, TEMA has regular calls with every county emergency management agency for every county in this state. Connecting with them around the efforts with regard to COVID. Personal protective equipment, all things related to the pandemic, we have that continuous communication. I talk weekly with the mayors from our four largest cities in corresponding counties. I have a federal delegation call every week. I have a call with county mayors across the state every week, our teams do. There is so much coordination going on right now across the state because of the pandemic, that the way to accomplish what’s happening in the middle of the tornado is actually magnified. Our FEMA people already here. TEMA’s already here. There are already processes in place to manage that.
Bill Lee: (12:13)
The biggest challenge that we will have is traditionally providing resources for folks through a disaster like this would be, having them come to a place where we congregate. That’s not going to happen. We’ll have that resource once we get this declaration put in place and the resources are available for individuals. We will develop a location that allows for social distancing, it allows for the limitations that includes technology much more robustly. We’ve learned how to do that in Putnam County because that tornado, it was more than just Putnam County, but the greatest damage was in Putnam County. That tornado occurred about three days before our first COVID case.
Bill Lee: (13:02)
So in the midst of the FEMA and TEMA efforts over the next week or two, we had to transition from traditional FEMA response to a new strategy for providing response relief to the victims there. And we did so in a way that provided for a safe, socially distance, technologically more advanced way of providing relief. I hope that answers your question. I think we are believing that our response to this will be enhanced because of the way we are operating across the state right now as a result of the pandemic.
Do you think that people then are at a higher risk of catching the virus because of having they just, stay with families rather than [crosstalk 00:00:13:54].
Bill Lee: (14:04)
Yeah. So for example, instead of the traditional American Red Cross shelters in a gymnasium or in a church, we’re utilizing the hotels so that people can individually stay in rooms and be socially distanced and protected from other victims. I think just like every other way in our society, we have learned over the past several weeks that we can live and continue to live safely, and that’s what we’ll be doing in our efforts here. Whether it’s our FEMA relief efforts, TEMA’s outreach, the American Red Cross, the way that we’re providing services to the residents here, we can do so in a way that is safe. And the pandemic has been here long enough to teach us how to do that.
Speaker 6: (14:52)
Governor Lee, I have a COVID-19-related question as well. So yesterday the president tweeted, trying to provide some clarity on the opening of the states, opening them back up. You mentioned that it is the decision of his office to essentially open each state back up as necessary. You said that you will be in communication with the governors throughout the process and he is talking to your offices individually about certain things. Can you just provide some clarity on that?
Bill Lee: (15:25)
Well we believe here in Tennessee that the health and safety of Tennessee is utmost. That would be true in our response today in this tornado. It’s true in our response to COVID. But we also believe that our economy cannot stay closed down for months on end. That Tennesseans need to get back to work. And we believe that those two things can be accomplished at the same time. So that is why yesterday I talked about the need to extend our social distancing stay at home order, but at the same time our strategy and our plan to begin to take steps to open our economy.
Bill Lee: (16:07)
I was on a phone call just yesterday with the White House, Vice President Pence, and our relationship with the White House, as many states’ relationship with the federal government is, is one of cooperation and working together. We all know that it’s time for us to consider ways to begin to open economies that will continue to provide for a recognition of the safety and health of our states and our citizens. That’s what Tennessee will do. I think that’s what we’ll see happen nationally. I certainly think that’s what the president is hopeful for and wants to be a part of. So, we see no reason why we can’t coordinate that and have that happen in our state at the appropriate time.
Speaker 7: (17:01)
Bill Lee: (17:05)
And other questions? Yeah.
Speaker 4: (17:07)
Also COVID-related. Is there any update on prison testing? I know you recently tested some of the correctional staffers. Is there any thought about all of Tennessee’s inmates at this time?
Bill Lee: (17:23)
Yeah, so we did in fact go in, we had two facilities that had a positive case among staff workers, and so we went into both of those cases and to both of those facilities and tested all of the staff. I don’t remember the numbers, but several hundred, maybe 1,500. I don’t remember exactly the number, but we tested staff members from both of those prison facilities. We do not currently have inmates that have tested positive in those facilities, so we haven’t developed additional strategy, and so we have an inmate that that tests positive. We certainly are looking at expanding testing to populations across our state more robustly. We’ve talked a lot about growing the testing capacity in this state. We’re going to be doing that. We’re actually going to be announcing some specific ways that we hope to expand testing.
Bill Lee: (18:27)
We are looking at, you asked about prison populations, we’re looking at populations that we should consider expanding that testing into, and prisons will be one we look at. But, the population we’re looking most closely at are the elderly. Those in assisted living and nursing homes. They’re most at risk if they develop or they contract the virus. As we expand our capacity for testing, we will likely move first to those who are most vulnerable, and we’re looking at a strategy to more robustly test the elderly that are currently living in assisted living facilities. But, prisons will be something we look at at at the right time.
Bill Lee: (19:14)
Speaker 4: (19:15)
Have you gone, or are you going today to Bradley, Marion and Polk Counties? And what is the response looking like there?
Bill Lee: (19:20)
Our teams will be touring that on helicopter. I went to one neighborhood this morning that was the most hard-hit, just to get a flavor of what’s happening here. So, our folks, particularly the ones that are most able to assist FEMA, TEMA, our state officials that are involved in assistance with locals, will be on the ground. It actually can be pretty disruptive for a large group of us to drive through areas. And while it’s important that we see a hard-hit neighborhood, many of these areas are not fully opened up and available yet. And so I’m not going to other neighborhoods this afternoon. But there will be teams of ours touring those by helicopter.
Speaker 7: (20:08)
We have one more question.
Speaker 8: (20:10)
Thank you. Back to the tornado [inaudible 00:20:11], and this is a question you can answer Governor or Mayor Coppinger, if you have time. So a couple of our viewers, some of our viewers and some of our community members, has messaged in and called us about alert systems ahead of the storm on Sunday. Some of them said that they did not receive any type of alert. Can you sort of explain what type of efforts are in place for Hamilton County and [inaudible 00:20:37]
Bill Lee: (20:37)
I think that’s probably best answered by the local officials.
Mayor Coppinger: (20:42)
And thank you for your question. We were asked this yesterday. Over the years there’s been a number of public service announcements but, many of you here in the media, and we continue to stress the importance of, if you have a cell phone to download the app that will alert you. It’s pretty simple to do that, you can get help from our emergency management people. The other thing that we’ve been encouraging for a number of years and we’ve heard some positive things come back from it as well, is to purchase say, a weather radio to get those alerts. So we happen to live in a community where we have a nuclear tower and as a result of that, they have an alarm system that goes off. They would sound much like an alarm you would for a tornado. So, it’s always been suggested to us because of our topography and that that nuclear facility that we use an alternative way of doing that. And we’ve been very successful.
Mayor Coppinger: (21:41)
As you may know, I don’t know how long you’ve been in the community here, but we’ve been doing this for a number of years through our local media and through our emergency management operation, is to encourage people to go out and purchase these radios, and the media has been very helpful with us getting that word out.
Speaker 8: (21:59)
Mayor Coppinger: (22:00)
Speaker 8: (22:00)
Governor, if you’d like to comment.
Bill Lee: (22:04)
Yeah. Kim, I want to clarify one question you asked about the prisons. As you know, we did have an inmate test positive, but that inmate was not in a prison [crosstalk 00:22:12] at the time. It was in a healthcare facility. So, I just want to be clear about that. When we do have positive tests there we’ll respond appropriately.
Bill Lee: (22:21)
Thank you all very much. I want to thank you all for being with me and for touring. And for the members of the delegation out there, really for all of the leaders in this community that have orchestrated an effort within a very short period of time, that the people in these counties that are most affected here, should be very proud of. This is a devastating thing for any community to go through. And make no mistake, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of heartache, there’s a lot of loss. There is a lot of need that will go on for many, many days and weeks and months in many of these families’ lives. And some of the losses they’ve incurred will never be replaced. We understand that. But the swift response, and the appropriate response, and the coordinated response that has been evident on the ground here today in our visit, you are to be commended for your response.
Bill Lee: (23:22)
We also saw nonprofit organizations already there helping. This is the time when Tennesseans’ and step up and be Tennesseans. This is the time that we live up to our name and we live up to our reputation of being the type of folks that come together and serve in ways that are presented to us in the midst of the greatest challenges we have. So, I implore you as well as you work together, that you also pray together with us for the people in this region. Pray for those that have lost family members. Pray for those whose houses have been destroyed. Pray for those who are serving them on the front lines, those healthcare workers and those first responders and those law enforcement officials, because that favor associated with all of the work that everyone’s doing together is part of what makes us unique. It’s part of what will make us proud of the response in the midst of trouble. So again, thank you all for being here today.