State of emergency still in place despite governor’s move

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Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

This article was written by Sam Stockard of Tennessee Lookout

A state of emergency remains in effect for Tennessee, partially to deal with COVID-19, even though the governor recently declined to extend a 20-month-old executive order in response to the pandemic.

Tennessee is at a level 3 emergency to handle the COVID-19 pandemic and six other federally recognized disasters, according to TEMA spokesman Dean Flener.

The level 3 designation under the Tennessee Emergency Management Plan adopted in 2018 means a serious emergency or minor disaster has occurred or a situation is deteriorating rapidly and public warnings are being issued. Tennessee has five levels in its plan, putting level 3 in the middle.

“There’s still a lot of engagement that we have related to COVID, just as we are still engaged with Waverly with the recovery from the floods in August. …,” Flener said. “And of course we are still engaged in COVID, not just from the response part of it but also in the recovery of it as the federal dollars that are being made available … from FEMA, especially in terms of being the state-level administrator for FEMA grant programs and whatever that is involved with with COVID from FEMA.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not require a state of emergency to be declared in order to provide federal funds, but a declaration does provide a communication “tool” to show FEMA the seriousness of a disaster.

Despite the governor’s recent decision to let his executive order lapse, several state departments continue to operate with an eye toward the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Department of Health, for instance, is maintaining a contract with Xtend Healthcare of Hendersonville for contact tracing through Jan. 31, 2022. The company’s total compensation will be $75 million through five contract extensions since it started work for the state in June 2020.

TEMA also continues monitoring data related to COVID-19 and holding regular calls with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as the Department of Health on the status of vaccinations, positive cases and hospital needs, according to Flener.

A Department of Military spokesman did not respond to phone calls to determine whether National Guard members continue to help give COVID-19 vaccinations or provide staff to back up hospitals.

Gov. Bill Lee’s expired order dealt mainly with hospital operations, transportation of equipment to respond to the virus, construction of temporary health-care structures and the potential for price gouging.

The governor said recently the state of emergency that took effect and was extended several times since March 2020 was done mainly to provide “flexibility and a regulatory environment” for hospitals to respond to the pandemic. But because of a “significant” decrease in hospitalizations, he decided to let it lapse.

COVID-19 activity remains prevalent, though. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 684 more cases Monday from the previous day for a total of 1,314,188. Seventeen more deaths were reported in one day for a total of 17,001 since March 2020, and 38 more hospitalizations for a current total of 811. The positive rate is 8.84%, which increased 2 points over the last two weeks, with 5,739 tests conducted in the previous day.

Lee also said last week no remaining federal funding was associated with the state of emergency when he let it expire. One of the main reasons for executing the initial order was to draw down federal funds, the governor said early in the pandemic. 

The state received about $2.3 billion through the CARES Act in 2020 and $3.9 billion through the American Rescue Plan with another $2.28 billion going to city and county governments.

According to Flener, a state of emergency declaration isn’t necessary to bring in federal funds through the Stafford Act, which has been initiated by President Joe Biden. 

Much of the federal money that went to TEMA during the early part of the pandemic was used to buy personal protective equipment. In 2020, the agency purchased $93.06 million worth of masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment to provide to first responders, front-line medical personnel and K-12 students and staff in 95 counties. Purchases fell to $2.98 million in 2021, mainly because local entities had more choices for buying equipment. Flener doesn’t expect the total for this year to go much higher.

Nevertheless, TEMA is continuing to spend funds in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters such as the Waverly flood and a Tennessee snow storm and other events, according to Flener. The federal government is to reimburse the state for those expenses, he said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie, who has been critical of the Lee Administration’s pandemic response, including his decision to cancel the executive order, questions whether the governor is being disingenuous.

“It’s apparent they have knee-jerk reactions, and it just depends on who’s making the loudest noise who they’re listening to. Obviously, they’re not listening to scientists, doctors, the experts in the field to try to make Tennessee a safe place to come to,” said Dixie, a Nashville Democrat.

Gov. Lee’s office is downplaying the continuation of the emergency by TEMA, in contrast to his decision to let the emergency order run out.

Lee spokeswoman Casey Black pointed out the governor mentioned recently that the state of emergency has been “very limited” for months while concentrating on deregulation and flexibility for hospitals. She reiterated the governor’s recent statement when he said a state of emergency has no impact on pandemic federal funding and pointed out a national state of emergency remains in place.

“We remain in contact with the Tennessee Hospital Association should they need flexibility,” Black said.

Black also noted the governor continues to monitor the number of COVID-19 cases through the Department of Health while the Unified Command “remains committed to vaccine distribution.”

The Unified Command includes the governor’s office, TEMA, Department of Military and Department of Health.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on December 3, 2021.