Tennessee doctors: Make masks mandatory, enforce rules

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A group of critical care physicians on Monday called on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to do more to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

In a news conference, Dr. Aaron Milstone suggested the governor needs to do three things to bring Tennessee's surging case numbers back down. First, he said, Lee needs to require people to wear masks in public.

“If people ignore speed limits, they're fined because they are endangering others,” said Milstone, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Williamson Medical Center. “During this health crisis, not wearing a mask, not social distancing, is endangering others.”

The doctors also want Lee to make the Tennessee Pledge enforceable. The Pledge outlines how businesses can protect workers and customers with social distancing, masks and other measures. And the doctors want Lee to give cities more authority to make rules that protect their citizens.

Tennessee saw coronavirus cases jump by 121% over the month of June as it reopened businesses. On Monday, the state recorded 724 new cases of coronavirus and seven new deaths, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the state to 653.

On Friday, Lee issued an order granting 89 counties the authority to issue local mask requirements if COVID-19 cases spike. A spokesperson for Lee's Unified Command Group, Dean Flener, cited that order when asked about the doctors' demands.

The Friday order “provides local governments with flexibility to address rising cases, and sets stronger expectations around the wearing of masks in Tennessee,” Flener wrote in an email.

Milstone was joined on the Monday news videoconference by more than three dozen critical care doctors from across the state. Dr. Jigme Sethi, with Chattanooga's Erlanger Health System, said the virus is unlike anything he has ever seen.

“This is the first time in my 35 years as a physician that I've felt helpless in the ICU,” he said. “The grief and sorrow of these needless deaths is devastating. They are dying alone, with no family present and no one holding their hands."

Dr. Jeff Wright, with the Baptist Medical Group in Memphis, said people are not taking the disease seriously enough while every day nurses, doctors and other hospital workers are risking their lives.

“There’s a huge misconception that it doesn’t effect young people,” he said. “Today our most critically ill patient is an otherwise healthy 22-year-old woman who has been hospitalized for the last five weeks.”

Dr. Murray Arons, at TriStar Skyline Medical Center in Nashville, said he is frustrated by the feeling of living in two separate worlds. In one, he works all day trying to save the lives of critically ill COVID-19 patients. In the other world outside the hospital, people downplay the seriousness of the disease, telling him they do not believe the situation is as bad as he says it is.

Arons also addressed concerns that an order requiring masks would be difficult to enforce, saying, “You can't walk down the street without pants on because we have decency laws. The police would pick you up.” But while not wearing pants isn't going to kill anybody, he said, not wearing a mask could.

Meanwhile, some counties were already beginning to take advantage of the power to order mask-wearing in public. Williamson and Sumner counties issued orders on Monday and Sevier County officials said they hope to have a decision by Tuesday. Flener said he did not know of any state agency that was tracking which counties had implemented their own mask orders. A spokesperson for the state Health Department, Shelley Walker, said they do not have a list because there is no requirement that municipalities report to them.

Lee's Friday order granting counties the power to require masks in public did not include the state’s six counties with their own health departments: Sullivan, Knox, Hamilton, Davidson, Madison and Shelby counties. Those counties already had the power to implement stricter COVID-19 protections. Davidson started requiring masks June 29, Shelby and Knox joined Friday and Madison on Saturday. Hamilton issued an order Monday.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and even be fatal.

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