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Gov. Lee: We're prepping for virus surge, about 350 Knoxville and Chattanooga beds will be added to help in fight against COVID-19

Lee and local officials talked Friday about how the Knoxville Expo Center can be used to expand bed capacity for virus patients.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Visiting Knoxville as part of his statewide effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Bill Lee called Friday on all Tennesseans to step up and help.

"Every Tennessean has a personal responsibility to engage in this fight against COVID-19," Lee said at the Lawson Athletics Center on the University of Tennessee campus. "We will get to the back side of it."

Lee said he spoke Friday with local government leaders about how to expand bed capacity for virus patients at the Knoxville Expo Center on Clinton Highway.

About 350 beds will be included at the center, he said. 

"There are not many facilities that are set up for a quick turnaround. There's quite a lot of work that has to be done in a short period of time." Lee said.

Part of the meeting that took place between the governor, Mayor Indya Kincannon, and Mayor Glenn Jacobs was how to start the process of obtaining more beds. 

"What was most important to me was to get started," Lee said. "If we need to start a second facility under construction, then let's do that. We know we're going to need the first round of beds, and that's the first action we needed to take."

The Knoxville Expo Center site would be operated in cooperation with local health care authorities.

Statewide, the state wants to add about 7,000 beds for people who have the virus but might not require hospitalization or acute care.

The governor said he thinks the state is making adequate plans to be ready for a surge in patients.

"We think we will continue to be able to stay ahead of the need," he said. "We have some very difficult days, some very difficult weeks ahead in this state"

He said the state is also working to ship personal protective equipment to health care providers who must work with virus patients in all 95 counties.

There's a "significant in-flow" of masks coming into the state, he said. He didn't have exact numbers.

"There is a very strong concerted effort in communities from one end of this state to the other," Lee said.

Tennessee has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers statewide to identify sites, such as the Music City Center in Nashville, where mass amounts of people can be kept and treated if needed.

Lee warned Thursday that the state is in for a "tough" April as the number of positive cases of the coronavirus mounts and the number of deaths mounts.

The state could see thousands of people die if the population can't halt the spread of the virus. Older people and people with diminished health appear at particular risk. 

“We talked about the preparations being made here in East Tennessee and I appreciate the leadership the Governor is providing," Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said. "The Expo Center will bring excess beds online and serve as a great alternative care site in the event that it is needed — which is vitally important.”

Tennessee still has not seen the virus reach its peak. Lee said that'll likely be in about three weeks, but it could change if the outbreak can be slowed.

Most people, state health officials say, recover, and some have no or only mild symptoms. For example, figures released Friday by the Knox County Health Department show that more than half its 93 cases have recovered.

"This effort is going to work if we do this together," Lee said Friday.

He also stopped in Chattanooga Friday afternoon to say that the convention center there would be used in a similar way, also adding 350 beds to the fight against coronavirus.

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