'Rewarding them for choosing not to get vaccinated': Physicians fire back at Tennessee governor’s pandemic policies

Doctors across the state, including one who serves on Gov. Bill Lee's COVID-19 advisory panel, are challenging his COVID-19 policies and cheering three court decisions to overturn his executive order allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates.

Dr. Erica Kaye, a pediatrician, oncologist and palliative care physician at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, in August drafted a letter to Gov. Lee and signed by thousands of medical professionals encouraging him to reverse course. She called the decisions by three federal judges to block Lee's executive orders in Shelby, Knox and Williamson counties, “critical steps in the right direction."

“As pediatricians and healthcare professionals, our primary mission is to save the lives of children," Kaye said. “Gov. Bill Lee has the power and the responsibility to protect the lives of Tennesseans, especially vulnerable young children who cannot yet be vaccinated. Since he has declined to do so, we are grateful that the courts have heard the concerns of those families whose children are most endangered and protected all children in these school districts. Every child, teacher and employee deserves the freedom to be safe in school, without exceptions."

U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer ruled Friday that Knox County Schools must put a mask mandate in place to protect children with health risks. U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw ruled the same day that Williamson County and Franklin Special school districts would be able to enforce mask mandates without exceptions.

Those decisions came in the wake of a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman to block Lee's mask opt-out order and issue a preliminary injunction in Shelby County.

Lee declined to comment last week on the pending litigation and also said he isn't sure whether he will renew the executive order when it expires Oct. 5.

The majority of Tennessee school districts opened in early August without universal mask rules, except for Shelby County Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools and a couple of rural school systems. In the past two weeks, the state has reported nearly 18,000 pediatric cases of COVID-19, and about 33% of cases statewide are found in children.

Gov. Lee said this summer on Fox News that children don't catch COVID-19. He later amended that statement to say the disease doesn't have the same effect on children that it does on older, health-compromised adults.

At least 14 public school employees, including teachers, have died from COVID-19 since the school year began, the Tennessee Lookout previously reported. More than 14,000 people have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Dr. Sarah Cross, Infectious Disease director at Regional One Health in Memphis and a University of Tennessee Health Sciences physician, previously criticized the governor's executive order enabling parents to opt out of school district mask mandates. Now, she's taking aim at his policy prioritizing monoclonal antibodies for unvaccinated people, or those likely to be the sickest from COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

“It's a very difficult situation," Cross said Monday. “On the one hand we are saving lives by giving monoclonal antibodies to the unvaccinated population because they are certainly at the highest risk of dying. On the other hand, we are rewarding them for choosing not to get vaccinated, thus prolonging this pandemic – the worst public health crisis of our time."

Cross pointed out only 52% of the state's residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. She noted Tennessee has used “a lot" of monoclonal antibodies because of low vaccination rates.

“There is not an unlimited supply of these antibodies, but physicians should be the decision makers on who gets this treatment – not Gov. Lee or Dr. Piercey," Cross said of the state's health commissioner.

Cross is a member of the Governor's Coronavirus Task Force, which hasn't met since summer 2020. Yet she is critical of his executive order on masks, which she contends put people in danger, as well as the directive on monoclonal antibodies.

“Our hospitals and frontline physicians see unvaccinated patients come in every day who are critically ill, filling up our ICUs and stretching the availability of life-saving equipment like ventilators and ECMO units. And this is entirely preventable," Cross said in a statement. “The problem is that Gov. Lee and some radical politicians have made this a political issue from the beginning, seeking to divide us for political gain, instead of treating this pandemic as the health crisis that it is."

When Cross first spoke out about the danger of the Delta variant in mid-August, 11,276 cases of COVID-19 infections had been reported among school-aged children, and 50 were hospitalized. Two died at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital and eight were in the intensive care unit there.

The problem is that Gov. Lee and some radical politicians have made this a political issue from the beginning, seeking to divide us for political gain, instead of treating this pandemic as the health crisis that it is.

– Dr. Sarah Cross, Infectious Disease director at Regional One Health in Memphis

Lee continued to defend his stance last week against mask requirements as well President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for businesses with more than 100 employees, saying he thinks mandates “counteract" the state's efforts to quell the pandemic.

The governor noted he has encouraged people to be vaccinated, with more than 112,000 getting the shot in the past week. But he declined to be photographed taking the vaccine and said he would not be involved in commercials encouraging people to take the vaccine.

In addition, Lee stood by his administration's directive for monoclonal antibodies to be used on the unvaccinated but gave himself an out on two fronts.

He noted the state is following guidelines set by the National Institutes of Health but said the ultimate decision about who receives monoclonal antibodies lies with clinicians.

“The good news is that the supply we're receiving from the federal government exceeds our demand for it right now and has so for the last several weeks. We believe that will continue because our case counts are dropping and our need for monoclonal antibodies will drop as well as hospitalizations do, or as infections do," Lee told reporters.

Asked why the state is following the guidelines if there is no shortage of monoclonal antibodies, Lee reiterated that the state gives guidelines to clinicians, who make the decision whether to use them.

“So the state has not directed that clinician to follow a guideline. They have given and passed along the National Institutes of Health guidelines."

The number of cases in Tennessee jumped by 5,638 Monday from the previous day, and deaths went up by 85. Hospitalizations, in contrast, dropped by 142 from the previous day, although 2,957 remain in the hospital for COVID-19 treatment.

Testing increased by 30,124 since Sunday with a 15.9% positive rate. More than 9.7 million tests have been taken.

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.

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