Tennessee

Maury Regional

The agency tasked with enforcing workplace safety rules in Tennessee has rejected a directive from state lawmakers to abandon federal COVID rules adopted in late August.

On Monday, the Joint Government Operations Committee voted for a “negative recommendation” toward the emergency rules, which govern masking, testing and distancing in hospitals and nursing homes. But at the hearing, officials with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that if the state refused to enforce the safety rules, federal authorities would likely intervene.

“The statutory language regarding rules does not authorize the withdrawal or the stay of a rule once the rule has become effective,” writes Tennessee Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord in a letter to Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, who chairs the Joint Government Operations Committee.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s deadline for complying with a vaccine mandate passed Thursday, following a surge of COVID shots being given to hundreds of employees in order to keep their jobs.

At this point, 97% of the health system’s workforce has now “complied” with the vaccine mandate, a figure that also includes those who received an exemption. That’s up from 95% early this week and up from 72% two months ago, when the mandate was announced. But even the big jump leaves roughly 900 who could lose their jobs.

Vanderbilt is now making sure employees didn’t receive a vaccination elsewhere and just not tell their employer.

Metro Nashville Public Schools

Governor Bill Lee has announced he will extend his executive order that allows kids to not follow mask mandates. The move comes after federal judges have made the governor’s order ineffective in three counties, citing the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Federal judges in Shelby, Knox and Williamson Counties have so far signaled that the governor’s order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates is unconstitutional. The order was set to expire next week, but the governor announced he will extend it 30 more days.

“I’ve been incredibly disappointed by the rulings from federal judges who’ve chosen to legislate from the bench,” Lee said Thursday. “I’ve been in full support of the attorney general as we defend the law in this state.”

The lawsuits are from families who have children with disabilities. They argue the opt-out provision puts their kids at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Tennessee State Board of Education/Twitter

State representatives in Tennessee are meeting this week to have a study session on education. It’s a chance for lawmakers to get together and discuss proposed legislation. But one lawmaker is upset after his proposal to expand teaching of Black history didn’t make the agenda.

Republicans promised to hear the bill in summer study. The measure calls for more inclusion of Black Americans in the state’s history standards by the 2025 school year.  

The idea was to work out the issues and start debating it in January. 

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, says the move to leave it off the agenda disrespects him and his constituents.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

COVID hospitalizations are beginning to ease up in parts of Tennessee. But intensive care units remain dangerously full, creating a backup in hospitals across the state.

The critical access hospital in Bolivar usually only has two or three patients at any one time. Right now, the rural West Tennessee facility has a dozen patients, and half of them are sick with COVID, according to CEO Ruby Kirby.

“In normal times, we would be able to get those patients out to a higher level of care,” she says.

Some are on ventilators being cared for in the small emergency department and need to be transferred to an ICU in Jackson, Memphis or Nashville. But there are no openings, Kirby says.

“We’re managing them, but it is putting a strain on the system, trying to hold these patients in these hospitals until we can get them moved,” she says.

Wilson County Schools

Wilson County Schools will be enforcing a temporary mask mandate for students, staff and visitors starting Friday. The district will also begin to follow the state health department’s quarantine guidelines, specifically to send unvaccinated students home if they were exposed to COVID, even if they show no symptoms.

“I can’t sit and be quiet no longer,” superintendent Jeff Luttrell said at a school board meeting on Wednesday. “We got some problems and we need to take stronger measures in our schools.”

The new protocol comes after the district went under a weeklong closure due to a high number of cases. The school board voted unanimously in favor of both health measures despite disagreeing on these issues in weeks prior.

“I don’t love it, but I think we asked both sides for a compromise and I think that this is a compromise,” school board member Jamie Farough said.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Tennessee has reopened a fund to help hospitals fly in temporary nurses as they’re short on staff. But hospitals are finding that there’s not much money left, even though the shortage is more critical than when they needed staffing help during the winter surge.

It’s a competition between hard-hit states where hospitals are overwhelmed and understaffed. Texas has a Texas-sized program. Mississippi has committed $10 million a week to bring in a thousand travel nurses. Meanwhile, Tennessee has $10 million total remaining from what was originally a $100 million fund.

“The money, thus far, that the state has committed to is not putting us into a position where we can compete very well,” says Dr. Wendy Long, the CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association.

Blaise Gainey | WPLN News

A Shelby County family is asking a federal judge to rescind Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order on masking in schools. The order lets parents opt out of masking, with no need to give a reason. The outcome may have national ramifications.

The Schwaigert family of Collierville argues that Lee’s order puts their teenager at risk. Their child suffers from tuberous sclerosis and is at high risk for severe complications if they were to contract COVID-19, so they say Lee’s order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That’s also the premise of a federal probe by the U.S. Department of Education. They’re looking at the masking policies in Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. In the letter, education officials point out that Florida’s masking policy was struck down last week.

Stephen Jerkins | WPLN

Some Tennessee hospitals are already treating more COVID patients than ever. And the statewide total is likely to hit a record this week — surpassing the peak of the winter surge.

ICUs have never been so strained. Nearly a third of the more than 3,000 COVID patients in Tennessee are so sick that they’re being treated in the ICU.

“We have beds. We don’t have the staff to take them. That’s the scary part,” says Taylor Wylie, a charge nurse in the ICU at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville.

Since the surge stretches across the under-vaccinated South, Wylie says they’re getting transfer requests from as far away as Texas and usually having to say no. Alabama, for instance, has a running deficit of ICU beds. Tennessee, at the moment, is at 94% capacity statewide.

Ballard Health

The Tennessee Guard is now pitching in at 13 hospitals that requested staffing assistance, including the largest hospitals in the state.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville is included in a list of six medical centers who have started receiving help since Monday. Also leaning on the guard are the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville and Regional One Health Medical Center in Memphis.

The two other large Memphis systems — Baptist and Methodist Le Bonheur — were announced last week. And Ballad Health in northeast Tennessee is using 20 guardsmen.

In total, 155 soldiers have deployed to Tennessee hospitals. They represent military medics and non-clinical troops, but they’re generally not being asked to take on clinical roles. Instead, the idea is for troops to take on administrative tasks and free up nurses to work more closely with patients. Staffing has been the primary limiting factor to hospital capacity in Tennessee.

Sumner County Schools/via Facebook

Tennessee may risk federal civil rights inquiries if the state continues on its current track, allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates for no reason at all. The U.S. Department of Education has put eight states on notice that their current guidelines conflict with federal policy meant to offer a safe, in-person learning environment.

In a memo, Secretary Miguel Cardona says his department may “initiate a directed investigation if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions.” He says the department will also respond to complaints from parents of students “who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”

Stephen Jerkins | WPLN (file)

Hospitalizations just keep climbing in Tennessee. The state is nearing 2,500 patients with COVID. And administrators know the worst is likely yet to come with new infections still surging and nearly 5,500 new cases confirmed on Wednesday alone.

Hospitals in Tennessee are already — in effect — full. Nurse Jerusha Robinson works at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where the stream of patients is constant.

“Especially with our COVID patients, we know when we have someone who moves from our ICU to our stepdown unit, very shortly after, we’re going to get another ICU patient who is just as sick as that patient or even more sick,” she said Wednesday after her overnight shift.

The limiting factor keeping hospitals from being able to handle more patients, at the moment, is not the number of beds — it’s the number of nurses. And COVID patients often require more attention. For example, those near death on an ECMO machine that oxygenates their blood have to have their own dedicated nurse.

TN Photo Services (File)

Gov. Bill Lee is requiring schools to allow exemptions to mask mandates. He signed a new executive order Monday authorizing parents to opt out, without needing to give a reason.

Departing from federal health guidance, Lee said masks should be optional.

“They’re protective and if parents want their child to be protected in that way, then they should do so. And if a parent believes that that’s not best for their kid because of other reasons, then they should have the ability to make that decision for the health of their children,” Lee said.

The governor’s order is meant to be a compromise with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who requested a special session meant to restrict local COVID rules.

TN Photo Services

Misinformation is spreading among Tennessee Republican lawmakers, like that the governor is planning for “quarantine camps.” So his office is trying to cut off the “conspiracy theories unfortunately being shared as fact.”

In an email to legislators sent Thursday and obtained by WPLN News, staffer Brent Easley tells lawmakers that an executive order signed Friday to relieve hospital staffing shortages (without explanation at the time) is being distorted. Among the claims are:

  • That it creates quarantine camps.
  • That the National Guard plans to round up people who are unvaccinated for quarantine or forced vaccinations.
  • That it lays the groundwork for permanent lockdowns.

Sergio Martinez-Beltran (file)

In a letter to Tennessee’s governor requesting a special session, House Speaker Cameron Sexton says, “there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials” and “protect all Tennesseans from misdirected mandates.”

He specifically notes he wants to “confirm a parent’s right” to make decisions about their children’s health. His letter also says the legislature needs to “evaluate the ongoing discrimination” against people prevented from entering buildings because they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Sexton had threatened a special session earlier this month as schools debated mask mandates, though Senate Speaker Randy McNally dismissed the idea. And in a statement Wednesday afternoon, McNally does not endorse a special session but says if one occurs he would want to keep it focused on keeping kids in classrooms, healthy and safe.

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