Gov. Lee and Natl. Guard.

Gov. Bill Lee visits a Tennessee National Guard unit earlier this year

With the official state count of confirmed COVID-19 cases rising to 784 on Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee said he is asking federal authorities for flexibility in spending state Medicaid dollars on uninsured Tennesseans battling the disease.

The case count lags behind county-level calculations, which are nearing 1,000 statewide according to NewsChannel5.

Lee said he spoke with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma on Tuesday, asking her for a waiver to disburse TennCare funds more liberally in response to coronavirus. He has also enlisted the help of Tennessee Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander in the negotiations and said he feels “encouraged” about progress on the talks.

During his daily press briefing, Lee noted that Tennessee leads regional peers in testing per capita (with much of that burden shouldered by Vanderbilt University Medical Center officials and focused on Middle Tennessee cases) and called ramped up testing efforts “one of the most important things we could do.”

The governor also applauded various “folks standing up for childcare,” suggesting that churches or nonprofits could seek permission to establish emergency temporary childcare facilities, especially for the kids of medical workers and grocery store workers.

With Lee signing several executive orders in recent days, including measures banning gatherings of more than 10 people and banning nonessential medical procedures in order to preserve protective gear, the governor is now faced with questions about enforcement.

Lee, an anti-abortion Republican, made it clear Wednesday that he does not believe “elective” abortions are “essential procedures” under his executive order banning nonessential surgeries in order to save protective equipment for the coronavirus response.

“Gov. Lee believes elective abortions aren’t essential procedures and given the state of PPE in Tennessee and across the country his hope and expectation would be that those procedures not take place during this crisis,” spokesperson Gillum Ferguson told the Associated Press.

And while isolated stories continue to pop up about churches remaining open despite Lee’s order — and other such situations that fly in the face of the governor’s declarations — the Tennessee National Guard is not being called on to enforce the provisions.

“Our mission is a humanitarian mission,” said Major General Jeff Holmes of the Tennessee Department of Military, who said 250 National Guard personnel have been deployed to help at testing sites with 1,000 more on standby. “We will not be conducting any law enforcement missions of any kind.”

That doesn’t mean Lee is giving up on enforcing the orders, though. He said his team has had conversations about how to engage law enforcement offices around the state if needed.

“The vast majority of Tennesseans are complying,” Lee said. “For the most part, it’s happening, but where there’s a disregard for life in this state, we will enforce.”  

This post originally appeared in our sister publication, the Nashville Post

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