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2020: A year of asking the tough questions during Tennessee's COVID-19 crisis

Governor Bill Lee and Phil Williams.jpg
Posted at 7:18 PM, Dec 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-28 20:18:25-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — 2020 was another year of big investigations for our NewsChannel 5 Investigates team.

But, like every other part of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic was the big story.

From the beginning of the COVID crisis, Tennessee doctors turned to NewsChannel 5 Investigates to try to get Gov. Bill Lee's attention with their calls for a shelter-in-place order.

"We are at a crossroads. We are standing on the edge of the abyss,” Franklin pulmonologist Dr. Aaron Milstone said.

Vanderbilt's Dr. David Aronoff, one of the top infectious disease experts in the country, also joined the call.

“I think we need to be able to look back and say we did everything we could in our power to prevent it from being worse, and I think that's where we are at in asking for shelter in place mandate,” Aronoff said.

Lee eventually relented, while always trying to put a rosy spin on the situation, including with the early crisis over personal protective equipment.

"You hear about a lot of makeshift things happening, but there's not makeshift happening in our state yet because we have stayed ahead of the curve," Lee claimed in one news conference.

While the governor had insisted there were no issues getting personal protective equipment, we discovered that
his own health department was suggesting makeshift solutions for health care providers -- for example, suggesting that, instead of medical gloves, they should consider using plastic grocery bags.

Ben Hall exposed outbreaks at meat processing plants around the state and on construction sites, inside Tennessee's prison system and at construction sites around Nashville.

After Jennifer Kraus and other members of the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team revealed a COVID outbreak at a Gallatin nursing home, we pressed the Lee administration to be more transparent about the real numbers in such facilities.

NewsChannel 5 pressed Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, "Families don't know if it's two cases or 200 cases. Why can the state not be more transparent about just how bad the scope of the problem is?"

"We're just posting those facility names for the public's benefit. We took our cues from other states that are doing the same," she said.

The state eventually relented and began posting those numbers.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve tried to see the crisis through the eyes of the front-line workers and the suffering, while pressing the governor when he parted ways with the scientists.

For example, Lee ignored the advice of White House advisor Dr. Deborah Birx, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics that officials should reduce the spread of the virus before re-opening schools.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you have a single scientific expert who tells you they are wrong?" About getting the pandemic under control, sir?"

"To be clear," Lee answered, "we have worked and continue to work every day to mitigate the spread of that pandemic in this state."

NewsChannel 5 also put the state’s COVID testing system to the test, while tracking no-bid spending on personal protective equipment, totaling nearly $80 million.

Included was more than $8 million spent on sock masks that did not meet CDC guidelines.

More recently, NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed how the Lee administration hired a Utah company - with no experience - to test for COVID-19. Career state employees objected to the contract.

Cost to taxpayers: $26.5 million.

"Entering into a $25 million, no-bid contract with a company with a lack of expertise over the objections of the professional staff of the agency is one of the most shocking things I’ve seen in my time in state government," said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

When the deal collapsed, as the career state employees predicted, the Lee administration agreed to pay the company nearly $6 million to get out of the contract.

Tennessee lawmakers summoned the health commissioner to Capitol Hill to answer some tough questions about the deal.

And, as the pandemic continues, so will our investigations.