NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A total of 14,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported in children last week.
During a call Wednesday, TDH Health executives said the case count among children is "exponentially increasing."
"Our best tools are vaccination and the wearing of masks," Deputy Commissioner Dr. Morgan McDonald said, adding that quarantining close contacts is "necessary and expected."
BREAKING: In call with TN school officials, @TNDeptofHealth exec said there were 14K new #COVID19 cases last week among children and number is "exponentially increasing." 1,300 kids visited ERs for COVID. "Our best tools," she said, "are vaccination and the wearing of masks."— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) August 25, 2021
"If there are choices not to enforce quarantine to allow kids back in school ... it will increase the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. McDonald.
Meanwhile, as schools across Tennessee are having trouble keeping their doors open, Gov. Bill Lee told reporters Wednesday that he's not ready to let them go back to virtual learning -- at least not yet.
Lee has famously claimed on Fox News that "kids don't get sick from COVID" and, more recently, he called the virus "an adult problem."
Now, his tone has changed.
"Of course, it matters to us every child that gets sick, every child that's lost," Lee said in response to a question from NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
We pressed, "Were you wrong when you said 'kids don't get sick from COVID'?"
Lee responded, "In the context of what we were talking about, the severity of illnesses."
It's not clear what he meant from that answer.
He continued, "We are here today because we are concerned about the rising cases of COVID in our pediatric hospitals."
Last week, COVID cases in children reached a new high of more than 2,000 cases in children reported in one day.
With children back in school, the number of COVID cases has steadily increased, forcing some schools to close due to a lack of faculty and staff.
CDC guidelines also say any child who was in close contact with a positive case should be quarantined -- unless both children are masked.
But the deputy health commissioner told school officials that it's their call.
"We, as the state can't enforce quarantine," Dr. McDonald said.
"It's your choice as school policymakers. If there are choices not to enforce quarantine to allow kids back in school who are in quarantine, it will increase. the spread of COVID-19."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee, "If failure to use quarantine as a tool will result in the increased spread of COVID, why do you not use your powers to order that?"
"We expect schools to respond to quarantine and we're providing them with the information to do that," the governor answered.
Why not order it?
"Well," the governor said, "because that decision is made on the individual level by districts."
Of course, the governor did use his authority to try to take away local control over school mask mandates.
But, in another change in tone, both the governor and his health commissioner strongly encouraged parents to send their children to school with face coverings, saying it's the best hope for keeping them in class.
During a press briefing Wednesday, Commissioner Lisa M. Piercey said the vaccination rate across the state has increased by 136% since early July ,and it has also increased in the vaccination of young people in the 12-15 age group and those 16-20 years old.
“Vaccines work. And it is the best tool that we have.” said Piercey.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn discussed COVID-19 policies and the state's efforts to keep students in classrooms amid the pandemic.
She said it has been "an unquestionably difficult start to the school year.”
Watch the full press conference here:
Editor’s note: We have updated this story to clarify that COVID vaccinations are only available for those 12 years and older.