Gov. Lee strengthens stay-at-home order, jobless claims soar

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee strengthened a stay-at-home order Thursday after initially resisting a statewide mandate despite pleas from the medical community that stronger action was needed to defeat the coronavirus outbreak.

Lee, a Republican, said that a recent uptick in “movement around the state” forced him to order individuals to avoid all non-essential travel until April 14 because of the global pandemic.

Previously, the first-term governor had only “strongly urged” people to stay at home, saying he was stopping short of a statewide mandate because he wanted to “protect personal liberties.” Lee received thousands of pleas from doctors and other medical professionals that a stronger order would help curb the virus’ spread.

“I have updated my previous executive order to clearly require that Tennesseans stay at home unless they are carrying out essential activities,” Lee said in a statement.

Lee said his administration analyzed traffic patterns and used cellphone mobility data to determine that more people were traveling across the state at “pre-COVID-19 levels.”

Lee’s new decree came after Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke issued a strict stay-at-home order. Berke is mandating that residents stay home by restricting all non-essential travel and suspending access to city-owned public spaces.

Around the state, the number of jobless Tennesseans continued to swell as more companies lay off workers. New unemployment claims climbed to about 94,500 last week, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday.

The number of claims more than doubles the 39,100 new unemployment claims from the previous week.

Three weeks ago — before cities and counties began issuing orders closing non-essential businesses — only 2,700 unemployment claims were filed in Tennessee.

The large bump in claims caused the state’s jobs website to experience problems from a 2,000% increase in usage. Technicians added capacity to the site to improve responsiveness, officials said.

Some of the biggest recent temporary layoffs include more than 880 workers at automotive parts maker ABC Technologies in Sumner County; 830 people at hotel company Chartwell Hospitality in Sevier, Williamson and Davidson counties; and 222 workers with auto parts manufacturer Takahata Precision Tennessee in Scott County.

Tennessee’s health department has reported more than 2,800 cases of the coronavirus and at least 32 deaths. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has seen 638 cases and seven deaths.

As more people get sick, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is evaluating sites in the Memphis area to convert to medical care facilities to ease the burden on hospitals.

The Army Corps said it has been asked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials to assess possible locations in West Tennessee.

Sites include large arenas, a former shopping mall, and an existing medical care facility. FedExForum in Memphis and University of Tennessee athletics facilities are under consideration, according to officials and news reports.

The search for more medical sites comes as hospitals anticipating a patient surge seek out more supplies, including masks, ventilators and beds. Residents are urged to follow social distancing rules and stay home as much as possible as infections rise. Still, officials worry the need for key supplies and medical staff will exceed capacity.

In Memphis, the need for volunteer medical staff, ventilators and hospital beds is growing, said Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease physician and member of Shelby County’s coronavirus task force.

Hospitals need three times the existing number of ventilators, double the amount of regular hospital beds, and four times the number of intensive care beds, Jain said, citing state-level data.

Memphis’ four major hospital systems are considering new strategies such as putting two virus patients in one room, converting regular rooms to intensive care rooms, and using ventilators from anesthesia and surgical rooms for treatment, Jain said.

A logistics group is working to find face masks for doctors and nurses. And testing capacity is increasing, Jain said.

“It’s always an uphill battle doing the task that’s ahead of us of such magnitude,” Jain said by phone.

Colleges and universities have closed and shifted to online learning. The University of Tennessee system says summer session classes at all campuses will be delivered online because of the outbreak.

In most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and may be life-threatening.

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Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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