Piercey ‘built for job’ as health commissioner

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Trenton native and Gibson County resident is providing a calm but confident voice of reassurance to Tennesseans.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, was born and raised in Trenton, where she graduated from Peabody High School. She is a key player in Governor Bill Lee’s COVID-19 Unified Command, a unique effort that brings together Tennessee leaders in health, military, and business in the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We are laser focused on being prepared,” Lee said in a conference call with Tennessee Press Association (TPA) members Thursday, March 26.

“We see great challenges ahead of us,” he said. “There’s no one like Tennesseans to handle it. We rise to the occasion like no others.”

Locally, friend and family are seeing Piercey rise to the challenge as a frequent contributor to the governor’s near-daily press conferences.

“We are extremely proud of Lisa Piercey,” said Tim Haney, director of the Trenton Special School District. “When she was a student at Peabody, she was that kind of leader. She has instant credibility. She was built for that job.”

In a phone interview with the Trenton Gazette on Monday, March 30, Piercey said the most challenging part for her as a doctor is having to make major decisions without having all the information and data she would like.

The COVID-19 Unified Command is providing a military-style response to the pandemic, Piercey said. Leaders are attempting to use the Colin Powell 40-70 rule, the essence of which is to collect 40% to 70% of the available facts and data, then make the best decision possible.

“That’s really hard because nobody’s ever done this before,” Piercey said.

The rule suggests that making a decision based on less than 40% of the needed information is unnecessarily risky but waiting until after 70% of the information is collected could close a critical window of opportunity. Piercey said there are significant implications to making a decision too quickly or waiting too long.

“It’s really difficult to thread that needle,” she said.

Sharing the burden of decision making with the COVID-19 Unified Command has been helpful. Piercey said at one point early in the state’s reaction to the virus, she was personally looking for ventilator parts online. Now, there are hundreds of people working with military organization to help Tennesseans get the most up-to-date information and resources they need.

Family support

Piercey said that personally, she is surviving the long days and nights of work with the steadfast support of her family. She and her husband David, a Milan native, have four children. David is also still working, so both of their extended families have stepped in to help with the kids.

“I am hanging in but solely because I’ve got a fabulous family that supports me at every move,” Piercey said. “We’ve got family to help with the kids. They’re providing me with a lot of emotional support.”

Piercey said the media’s response to the governor’s and unified command’s decisions has taken a toll on her personally and also shapes public perception. Social media has been particularly cruel, she added.

“I would never survive without my family,” Piercey said.

In regards to media, Piercey advises that Tennesseans get off the devices, limit their time watching the news, and get outside to bolster their mental health.

“Stay informed but don’t be consumed,” she said.

Piercey, who has competed in marathons, said exercise is important to mental and physical health. In Nashville where she is working at the capitol, traffic has eased, but she watches with envy as runners pass by.

“I’ve never wanted to run so badly in my life, and I hate running,” Piercey joked.

Encouraged by volunteer spirit

Piercey and Lee gave similar answers to how they are encouraged during this time of uncertainty.

“This is a sad and scary and frankly historic time, but Tennesseans are rising up,” Piercey said. “We are doing what Tennesseans do best. We are coming out to help each other.”

She also noted that Nashville and the Middle Tennessee area are hubs of health care innovation, and she is seeing that come into play for the good of the state and the country.

Lee described the pandemic as a storm but said he believes the storm is passing.

“Take this seriously,” he said. “Heed the advice. This COVID-19 virus is going to be addressed most effectively when each Tennessean takes individual responsibility for their actions.”

Safer At Home

Lee signed an executive order March 30 called “Safer At Home,” which applied the same limitations on nonessential businesses that Gibson County Mayor Tom Witherspoon and several city mayors in the county had already imposed. He is asking Tennesseans to work from home whenever possible; avoid social gatherings of 10 or more people; avoid eating or drinking at restaurants, bars, and food courts, and instead use drive-thru, pick-up, or delivery options; avoid discretionary travel and social visits; avoid discretionary visits to nursing homes, retirement homes, or long-term care facilities; avoid close contact with people who are sick and distance oneself from others, especially those who are at higher risk of getting sick, including in particular older adults and persons with serious chronic medical conditions; and practicing good personal hygiene, including washing hands, especially after touching any frequently used item or surface, avoiding touching the face, and disinfecting frequently used items and surfaces as much as possible.

The order went into effect March 31 and remains in effect until 11:59 p.m. on April 14.

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