Tennessee defends COVID-19 response to oversight chair

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday defended Tennessee’s response to the coronavirus pandemic after receiving criticism from a top Democratic congressional leader, arguing that his decisions have been “data driven” despite not adhering entirely to White House recommendations.

“Our response has focused on reducing bureaucratic barriers, strengthening private sector partnerships, and finding every opportunity to protect the lives and livelihoods of Tennessee,” Lee, a Republican, said in a three-page letter to South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.

Clyburn, a Democrat and chairman of the House coronavirus oversight panel, had sent out requests earlier this year to four Republican governors demanding documentation on how their states are combating the pandemic.

According to Clyburn, Tennessee appeared to be flouting private recommendations from the White House’s coronavirus task force and instead following “contradictory public messaging coming from (President Donald Trump’s) Administration.”

The Democrat requested Lee hand over public health guidance communications provided by the White House to figure out which guidelines the state was following. Just days earlier, White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx traveled to Nashville to implore leaders to close bars, limit indoor restaurant seating and to wear masks.

While Lee has spurned implementing a handful of White House guidelines as he manages the virus outbreak, the Republican governor argued Wednesday that he was not instead following a secret set of public health guidelines.

“Your letter appears to insinuate that I have chosen to ignore the public health guidelines developed by the White House Coronavirus Task Force and have chosen instead to follow some alternative set of recommendations from the Administration,” Lee wrote. “Fortunately, reality doesn’t often fit into the preferred narratives of Washington, and this case is no exception.”

Additionally, Lee’s office handed over six state reports the White House collected on Tennessee over the past several months. The reports summarized the virus outbreak in the Volunteer State and listed various recommendations, many of which included statewide mask mandates and limiting indoor dining. Some of the reports urged bar and gym closures in COVID-19 hot spots.

Lee has thus far refused to mandate masks statewide, instead allowing local counties to make the decision. The governor has also vowed not to once again close businesses to stop the spread of the virus.

Clyburn’s office did not immediately return an emailed request for comment from The Associated Press.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Tennessee declined over the past two weeks, going from about 2,078 new cases per day on July 28 to 1,782 new cases per day on Tuesday.

However, the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths has risen in that same time frame, from nearly 15 deaths per day on July 26 to about 22 deaths per day as of Tuesday.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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