NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — During a national television appearance, Governor Bill Lee inaccurately claimed children do not get sick from COVID-19.
The comments come amid criticism the governor’s office hasn’t followed through on a promise to beef up a public campaign to get more people vaccinated.
Gov. Lee took part of a town hall forum with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Wednesday night in Nashville, discussing Tennessee’s response to the pandemic.
“If you want to follow the science, you wouldn’t have kids in a school wearing masks when kids do not get sick from COVID,” Gov. Lee claimed falsely.
According to numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health, there have been over 48,000 cases of COVID-19 among children aged newborn to 10-years-old. Five deaths have been reported among that group. In children ages 11 to 20, more than 110,000 cases have been reported, with an additional five deaths.
COVID cases in people 20 and younger make up about 19 percent of total cases reported in the state.
“I’m disappointed that the governor lied to the American public, he misrepresented facts, he stated a complete falsehood on national television just to speak to a political audience and hope to curry political favor,” Rep. John Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat said.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office released this statement in response to the controversy:
“Governor Lee talked about the importance of following the science and explained why masks should not be required in schools. Over a year’s worth of data shows there is little to no risk of children being infected or becoming seriously ill from COVID. Additionally, teachers and school faculty were among the first eligible for the vaccine in Tennessee.”
The remarks by Gov. Lee come as some state leaders want to see a more robust effort to deliver factual vaccine information to Tennesseans. The Tennessee Department of Health started a new campaign this month, but some lawmakers say it’s not enough.
“We need to be doing everything we can to get vaccinated. Because otherwise we are leaving Tennessee’s economy vulnerable,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, said.
According to the CDC, Tennessee ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to vaccine doses given in each state.
“This virus is not gone away, and it’s not going away any time soon. The only way that people who know what they’re talking about say we’ll going to defeat this is— if we get a certain amount of the population vaccinated,” Clemmons said.
A possible resurgence in COVID during cooler months could leave rural and underserved communities vulnerable.
“We should expect our leaders to lead by example and tell the truth about how we’re going to work together to defeat this,” Clemmons said. “I’m seriously concerned about areas out there in especially rural Tennessee, failure to expand TennCare has resulted in a lot of rural hospitals closing.”
In all, 2.6 million Tennesseans have been vaccinated so far.
Dr. Jason Martin, a critical care physician who has been treating COVID-19 patients in Tennessee since the beginning of the crisis, said in a statement responding to Gov. Lee’s comments:
“While serious illnesses in children are less common than in adults, right now — today — there are children hospitalized with critical illness from COVID with life threatening disease. In addition, many children who recover from COVID suffer long-term, and possibly permanent effects that we do not even fully know the scope of yet.
Governor Lee, how can you look us in the eye, and make blatantly false statements that endanger the lives of innocent children? Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, so according to the CDC, we need to continue to use masks and social distancing practices to keep children safe and keep our schools open. If you want to continue our state’s recovery, we need to encourage masking and distancing for unvaccinated populations, and we need to address Tennessee’s dismal vaccine messaging and roll out. We are 46th in the nation in vaccine adoption, and that is absolutely unacceptable.“