Jennifer Martin sat with her kids on the patio of a small Florida condo. They’ve been living there for a month, but by now, the days all seem to blend together.
“It’s supposed to be such a fun and happy place, but there’s this weird juxtaposition between the beautiful scenery and this massive weight of the world weighing down on you,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer is a dermatologist. During any other month of any other year, she would be at her office back in Nashville. But her husband Jason is an ICU doctor fighting on the front lines of Tennessee’s COVID-19 response. The couple made the decision back in mid-March for Jennifer to take the kids down to Florida so Jason could sleep in his own bed without risk of infecting the family. They’ve agreed to remain quarantined from each other for the remainder of the pandemic. Until then, Jason will continue battling COVID-19 through 12 hour+ days in the ICU.
The pair could never have predicted the situation they are in now. Only a few months ago, the Martin family was planning to visit their close friends in the Netherlands. At the time, the Coronavirus had only recently reached Italy and people still felt a false sense of confidence in the world’s collective ability to respond to the situation.
A few days before the scheduled trip, Jennifer received a text from her friend in the Netherlands:
“Don’t come. Drastic change overnight – not safe anymore.”
Within a few days, COVID-19 had gripped Italy and the rest of Europe in a deadly demonstration of just how serious this virus was going to be. Almost anyone could see that the U.S. was not far behind. As data continued to pour in from abroad, Jennifer didn’t need to be the doctor she is to read the writing on the wall, “We were on the exact same curve as Italy – it’s simple math – unless we did something, we were going to end up the same if not worse.”
It was March 14th when Jennifer quickly pulled her kids out of school and brought the family down to Florida to quarantine away from her husband. She sent letters to Mayor John Cooper, Governor Bill Lee, and other representatives urging them to take action. “Whether you have one or 50 cases in your community, now is the time to act,” she said.
But it was business as usual in Nashville. Pedal taverns roamed the streets, Broadway bars refused to close their doors, and people continued to go about their day-to-day lives seemingly unaware of the impending crisis.
Soon after arriving in Florida, Jennifer took action into her own hands. Her husband Jason had shown her a letter from fellow medical practitioners demanding action from Governor Lee, and Jennifer decided to spread the word. She formed a petition urging Governor Lee to mandate a safer-at-home order for the state of Tennessee.
Only a few hours after posting the petition to a local Facebook group, hundreds of signatures were flooding in.
By March 20th, the petition had gained momentum. An activist in Chattanooga, Jonathan Wilkins, reached out to get involved. He and Jennifer began recruiting volunteers to spread the petition, and within only five days, they had reached over 40,000 Tennesseans.
Jennifer connected with her friend, an attorney based in Nashville, to continue working on the legal side of the growing movement now named Protect My Care. “It was just this fevered pitch, we would virtually meet every day at noon and then every night at 8:30. What’s our plan for the next day? What’s our stance to the media?”
The group took off. Between March 20th and 30th, over 33,000 Tennesseans signed the petition along with over 9,500 medical professionals from Tennessee’s medical community.
By the end of March, 45 states in the country had shut down. Tennessee was not among them.
Dr. Tufik Assad, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Williamson County then issued a statement speaking on behalf of his fellow physicians,
“We each took an oath to protect our patients, much like your oath, to lead and protect our state. Governor Lee, we are pleading. Please do your job so that we can do ours. To protect lives.”
Still there was no response from Governor Lee, who instead prioritized protecting the economy over the lives of Tennesseans all across the state. Against the overwhelmingly clear and direct advice from medical professionals and demands from constituents, he failed to act.
In the interim, mayors and various city leaders took heed of the petition and decided not to wait on state officials who were proving themselves incompetent of effective leadership.
Protect My Care continued advocating for and supporting city-mandated safer-at-home orders in cities like Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. Nashville Mayor John Cooper issued a safer at home order on March 22nd, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland quickly followed by ordering safer at home on March 23rd, and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon ordered safer at home on March 31st.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (who issued a safer at home order for all of Kentucky on March 26th) warned residents not to visit Tennessee, citing Lee’s resistance to a statewide stay-at-home order,
“If you are a Kentuckian living on that border, I need you to not go to Tennessee for anything other than essential work or helping a loved one,” Beshear said.
The difference in response now has fatal consequences. A chart posted on Twitter by Kentucky educator Stephanie Jolly has spread across social media and local news stations. It illustrates the stark differences in COVID-19 cases between Tennessee and Kentucky. As of Sunday, Tennessee is reporting 5,308 cases and 101 deaths while Kentucky reports 1,963 cases and 97 deaths. The case per capita in Tennessee is more than double Kentucky’s.
It was not until former Senate majority leader Bill Frist added his name to the petition that Governor Lee finally took action and declared a state-mandated safer-at-home order on April 2nd.
In a public statement, Governor Lee said, “April stands to be a very tough month for our state. COVID-19 is an imminent threat, and we need you to understand that staying home isn’t an option. It’s a requirement for the swift defeat of COVID-19 in Tennessee.”
He later shared a tweet stating that citizens were not abiding by safer-at-home measures. His comment mentioned that this behavior was “dangerous, unacceptable, and a threat to lives in our state.”
This is true – citizens disregarding safer-at-home measures is a threat to lives all across the state. It is also true that ignoring resoundingly clear medical advice, explicit data from other states, and thousands of constituents demanding action is dangerous, unacceptable, and a threat to lives in our state. We lead by proactive initiative, by example, by action – not by tweets.
Luckily, there are still those leading Tennessee in these unprecedented times. City mayors like John Cooper, healthcare professionals like Jason Martin, and powerful grassroots movements like Protect My Care continue to fight to protect as many Tennesseans as possible, no matter the obstacles.
As for Jennifer Martin and Protect My Care, the group has shifted to ensuring healthcare professionals and medical centers are supplied with the necessary tools for the ongoing struggle against COVID-19. Jennifer’s message to healthcare workers is, “Give me your wish list, we’ll go to the team, and we’ll get the things you need.”
Applying pressure to Governor Lee to mandate safer-at-home was a strong first step and an instrumental contribution from all of those with Protect My Care, but the fight is long from over.
“It’s going to take a community – we need to support our friends and neighbors – especially those who don’t have an economic safety net. It’ll take all hands on deck to weather this storm because it’s going to be a long one,” Jennifer said.