Bill Lee authorizes Tennessee National Guard to serve in hospitals as COVID-19 surges


National Guard personnel with appropriate training soon will be deployed to Tennessee hospitals to relieve capacity strain brought on by a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order Friday permitting National and State Guardsmen with appropriate training and skills to serve as nurses and ambulance drivers, and to conduct COVID-19 testing in hospitals, emergency rooms, and alternative care facilities.

Only National Guard personnel with appropriate training and skills are authorized to serve under the order, and assignments are required to be approved by state officials.

Specific destination hospitals for National Guard personnel have not been determined, a Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) spokesperson said.

The order also cuts certain red tape, giving hospitals more flexibility to respond to rising cases. Certificate of need requirements are temporarily suspended, allowing hospitals to increase the number of hospital beds at any location or temporarily establish a hospital or nursing home at any location to treat the virus. The order also authorizes registered nurses to delegate certain tasks – including vaccine administration – to medical assistants under their supervision.

“The governor is committed to reducing regulatory barriers to help Tennessee hospitals manage capacity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that's what today's executive order will help accomplish,” Lee spokesperson Gillum Ferguson told The Center Square in an email.

Ferguson noted the TDOH also is providing $51 million in hospital staffing assistance grants for hospitals to hire additional staff.

Lee's executive order comes as a rise in coronavirus cases is causing significant strain on county health departments and hospitals.

The Hamilton County Health Department suspended COVID-19 contact tracing efforts Friday, asking patients with a positive test result to self-isolate and notify close contacts of exposure.

“These changes in mitigation strategy are due to an increased number of positive cases in Hamilton County, an increase in testing, test result delays, and a strain on computer reporting systems,” Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said in a statement.

In East Tennessee, only eight of the region’s 284 intensive care unit beds remain available, according to the Knox County Health Department. Eight percent of ICU beds across the state remain available, according to the TDOH. As of Friday, 2,485 Tennesseans are hospitalized with the virus.

Lee authorized the National Guard response within hours of the state setting a record for COVID-19-related deaths in a single day. The TDOH reported 95 new COVID-19 fatalities Friday, breaking the previous record set Thursday and bringing the total to 4,876 Tennesseans who have died from COVID-19 since March.

“Because Gov. Bill Lee has failed to take the most basic steps to protect Tennesseans, we are in a crisis where he has to call in the National Guard to deal with overwhelmed hospitals and literally thousands of preventable deaths,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said in a statement. “In what sane universe is a crisis severe enough to call in the National Guard for overflowing hospitals, but not severe enough to issue a mask mandate?”

The TDOH also reported record highs this week for the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases. The department reported 3,967 new cases Friday, down from Monday’s all-time high of 7,975 and bringing the seven-day average to 5,125 cases.

According to research from Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Department of Health Policy, it’s taking the state more than a week, on average, after the date of a positive COVID-19 test to report new positive cases.

Tennessee is on track to receive about 56,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine by mid-December, according to state officials. Health care workers and first responders will be prioritized to receive the vaccine first.

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