Monday afternoon saw Gov. Bill Lee extend the state’s stay-at-home order from its original ending date of April 16 through the end of the month, a decision made after the urging of state leaders and medical experts alike as a means to curb the spread of coronavirus.
And while many have lauded Lee for his willingness to listen to medical experts, some - including the Tennessee Democratic Caucus Chair, Mike Stewart - say that isn’t enough.
A recent study from HCA Healthcare and Vanderbilt University Medical Center shows that were the current rate of hospitalizations to continue, Tennessee may not see its peak of coronavirus cases until June. Were social distancing measures to be lifted, the study projects around 50,000 Tennesseans could require hospitalization in June, far exceeding the state’s hospital bed capacity of around 25,000.
Stewart called Lee’s decision to extend the state’s stay-at-home order a “wise move,” but argued Lee’s eagerness to reopen some businesses in May to be premature given the state of Tennessee’s health care infrastructure.
“I think it's great that he is trying to get the economy going - my worry is I don't think we have the infrastructure in place to control the disease yet, and so we need to let our public health experts tell us how to do this,” Stewart said. “My concern is that I hear stories from the field that suggest we don't have enough public health officials working on contact tracing, [and] we don't still have enough testing capacity.”
Stewart said he shared Lee’s desire to see the economy back up and running in Tennessee, but that the most efficient way to reach that goal would be through improving the state’s health care infrastructure - more particularly by expanding Medicaid.
“I'd like to see more planning showing that we're hiring more contact tracers, that we're really looking at scaling up our public health approach,” Stewart said. “We also incidentally need to decide [if] we're going to put politics aside and expand Medicaid - whether people like it or not, it's essential. I think it's time for people to wash their hands of the whole political battle and just accept that that's something we need to do.”
Small businesses in particular are struggling during the economic slump brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, with a recent poll released Friday from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife showing that roughly one in four small businesses have temporarily closed in response to the pandemic.
Williamson County is no stranger to small business, with revenue generated from small businesses accounting for 13.55 percent of all reported income - the highest amount in the state. Stewart said the best way to help businesses in Williamson County would be the same way to help stop the spread of COVID-19 - by expanding the state’s health care infrastructure.
“Williamson County is, I think, the most affluent county in the state, and so I hope the people that own those businesses are able to use the resources they've saved up to survive,” Stewart said.
“I don't think it's any small thing - my heart goes out to these people who built these businesses, often with their families for years and years. There's not much that's harder to do than to build a successful small business, and so it is important to try to help these businesses get income and get moving.
“I think the more we can start building up our public health infrastructure, the better we'll do for the economy as a whole, and I really think we have to continue to be more aggressive in doing that.”
State leaders voted to turn down federal dollars related to Medicaid expansion back in 2015 on the grounds that the state could be locked in to expanding Medicaid year after year. Stewart said he believes the best approach to passing Medicaid expansion would be to place the decision into Lee’s hands.
“I believe that the best way to approach it is to give the governor the freedom to negotiate to expand Medicaid,” Stewart said. “We have a statutory barrier we put in place, I think incorrectly - we need to remove that, then let Gov. Lee make the decision. I think Gov. Lee is a business person, and I'm hopeful that just the obvious financial benefits of doing that will be persuasive to him.”