“The situation in Tennessee right now is critical!”

Doctors petition Governor Lee to allow school mask mandates as another COVID-19 peak is expected within weeks.
Published: Aug. 24, 2021 at 10:03 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Several Knoxville-area doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have signed an open letter petitioning Governor Bill Lee to listen to science and allow masks mandates for students in schools.

They join thousands who signed the letter, along with several physicians who are speaking out from the Memphis area, which has seen the first wave of increased COVID-19 infections that is anticipated to sweep across the state.

“The situation in Tennessee right now is critical!” said St. Jude Physician, Dr. Erica Kaye, who penned the open letter to the governor signed by more than 5,700 healthcare professionals and supporters. They are part of the Protect My Care movement.

Kaye and several colleagues mostly from the Memphis area, spoke out over the weekend in a video explaining their reasons for urging state officials to support mask mandates for schools.

They said the COVID-19 infections are surging again, the Delta variant is more infectious than what they’ve seen before, and hospitals are getting overloaded with case already.

They are urging masks especially to protect school-aged children and to stop the spread of the disease to entire communities.

“Many intensive care units across the state are already at capacity.” said Dr. Kaye, “Yet we remain weeks away from the projected peak surge.”

Dr. Diana Sepehri-Harvey said, “Scientific evidence demonstrates that masks can decrease the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Jeremie Estepp said, “Wearing masks is not backtracking. It is the practical, necessary response to an acute, critical situation.”

Dr. Kaye explained that for those under 12 who cannot even receive a COVID-19 vaccination. “Without access to vaccines, the only available protections for school-aged children are masking and social distancing.”

The doctors speaking out say they want to provide sound science-based advice so children may continue attending school, a shared goal of the Lee administration that promotes in-person learning.

“We agree with Governor Lee that we must do everything possible to try to keep schools open,” said Dr. Kaye.

Lee issued his Executive Order 84 on August 16, allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates. When issuing the order, the governor stated, “No one cares more about the health and well-being of a child than a parent. I am signing an executive order today that allows parents to opt their children out of a school mask mandate if either a school board or health board enacts one over a district.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is supporting local schools in being able to issue mask mandates and other protections for students, stating on August 20, “...we stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.” in a letter to Governor Lee and the state’s head of education, Cardona writes, “The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy. Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.” The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend masks in schools.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center noted that within just a few hours of Dr. Kaye writing the open letter starting the petition, more than 500 healthcare professionals had signed in support. That evolved into thousands of supporters.

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