Dr. Birx visits Tennessee, says mask mandates, bar closures essential in mitigating COVID-19 spread

Posted at 1:20 PM, Jul 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-27 21:31:46-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — White House Coronavirus Response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx met with Gov. Bill Lee Monday to discuss the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Birx’s visit comes after a White House Coronavirus Task Force report recommended that 18 states – including Tennessee – consider rolling back reopening.

Birx said in order to help mitigate the spread of the virus, mask mandates need to be in place, along with bar closures and social distancing measures. However, she stopped short of saying there needed to be a statewide mask mandate in place.

Birx said while 65-70% of Tennessee counties have a mask mandate, they need 100%, including rural counties, to have an order requiring them.

"So I guess it's really important to convey that we're asking everybody to make a personal sacrifice of responsibility to one another to really decrease these caseloads by doing these recommendations," Birx said.

"I would like to believe that by us saying there's science and principle and evidence behind it that [it] should be good enough for every Tennessean to follow."

Most questions from the press centered around the notion of masks being mandatory at the city and county levels, but not from the state. In one of his last statements from the day, Gov. Lee made it clear he did not feel a statewide mask mandate was effective. He said if he felt a statewide mandate made a difference, he would implement the policy.

“People wear masks because they believe that there is a reason to do so and I believe they will increasingly understand that as their local officials advocate for that,” Lee said.

The trend of leaving the choice up to each city/county leads to the school discussion. Dr. Birx mentioned the importance of making sure students are put first, while at the same time offering the option for in-person teaching when school districts doing the right things.

Those right things include if the school is socially distancing students and making masks mandatory.

She said in order to safely open schools, case numbers have to decease. When asked how individual school districts should make their own decision on how to proceed school this year, Birx responded, “Every school district has to understand public health."

“If you can protect the students, the teachers, the families and those with comorbidities, when you’re in that situation where your caseload is dropping, your test positivity is falling, that is a situation that we would like to see. Because what’s important to us is the safety of the children, the parents and the teachers," she said.

Gov. Lee says he plans to dedicate all of his time at Tuesday’s press briefing to school reopening plans. There he will detail the state’s recommended plans for districts and how they plan to allocate money to help schools reopen safely.

“Our hope is that kids can be in school in person. We believe that’s best for children and I think that we are advocating for and encouraging districts to provide that option for parents,” Lee said.

Birx said she met with Nashville Mayor John Cooper to discuss how the city's mask mandate and bar closures have brought some stability and a decline in cases. She also cited evidence from Phoenix, Arizona, where they closed bars, restricted indoor dining and required masks in all public spaces and decreased social gatherings.

“Even though [Arizona] was in a very difficult place with extraordinarily high test positivity, they’ve been able to turn that around in the last four weeks. So it’s not just theoretic any longer, it’s clear," she said.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini issued the following statement in response to Governor Lee's refusal to follow Dr. Birx's recommendations.

“Six months ago, by working together and by making a few tough decisions at the beginning of the threat, Tennessee’s economy would have been rebounding. Instead, Governor Lee refused to tell Tennesseans to wear a mask, downplayed the danger of the pandemic, made weak suggestions with no enforcement mechanism or accountability, and confused Tennesseans as to whether or not to take the pandemic seriously.

Even now, six months later and with cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, Governor Lee refuses to lead. Today, he said that he willfully ignores the advice by one of the top members of the White House coronavirus task force, Dr. Deborah Birx, who warned that unless Governor Lee closes bars, limits restaurants, and mandates mask wearing for all 95 counties, the situation will continue to get more grim.

The time for making suggestions is over. Tennesseans need statewide clear and enforceable guidelines for wearing a mask, staying at home, and operating their businesses from Governor Lee today.”


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What is COVID-19 (a.k.a. the new coronavirus?)

According to the World Health Organization, coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Examples include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. COVID-19 stands for "Coronavirus disease 2019," which is when this strain of the coronavirus was discovered.

What are the symptoms?

The CDC says patients confirmed to have the 2019-nCoV reportedly had mild to severe respiratory illness with:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Or at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

At this time, the CDC believes symptoms could appear as soon as two days after exposure, or as long as 14 days.


The CDC is recommending "common sense" measures such as:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.