Aaron Milstone led the charge for a Stay-At-Home order in Tennessee in April, and is now fighting for a mask mandate.
When Dr. Aaron Milstone, originally of Lathrup Village, started to see COVID-19 cases rise in his current home of Tennessee back in March, he knew the state’s government would have to act fast to contain an outbreak.
Milstone, a pulmonary critical care physician based in the Nashville-area city of Franklin, and another Nashville-area doctor felt a Stay-At-Home order would help the state keep the virus at bay, but Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee wasn’t keen on mandating one. Milstone and his friend realized they had an uphill battle ahead of them.
“We knew on the front end that we were probably going to get into a quagmire with all of this,” Milstone told the Jewish News.
The pair set up an online petition urging Gov. Lee to issue a Stay-At-Home order in Tennessee, figuring they’d need to get one or two hundred doctors to sign it before sending it to the governor. By the next morning, though, they already had signatures of 500 medical professionals from across the state.
“It was internists. It was family practitioners. There were gynecologists on there. There were pathologists on there. And the one unifying theme was that we needed a Stay-At-Home [style on this should be consistent] mandate for the state of Tennessee,” Milstone said.
In less than a week, the petition had garnered over 2,000 signatures, and Milstone got the Tennessee Medical Association and other medical organizations to support their cause, too. Local media outlets began to take notice of Milstone’s efforts, and when the petition was opened up to non-doctors, over 35,000 Tennesseans signed on in support of a Stay-At-Home order in less than a week. But Governor Lee would not commit to the order.
Soon Milstone’s local media attention turned into international media attention. He began doing interviews with CNN, Forbes, Bloomberg, and MSNBC. His team was mentioned in newspapers in San Francisco, Missouri and even London.
When still no change had been made, Milstone reached out to Bill Frist, a former Tennessee senator and a doctor himself. Frist, a Republican, signed the petition and on April 9, Milstone’s team held a press conference to announce the development. Later that same day, Governor Lee announced that Tennessee would be under a Stay-At-Home order.
“We end up with this ragtag bunch of doctors and pharmaceutical reps and mayors and a couple teenagers,” he said of the team he worked with on the campaign. “It’s just an incredible story of how a team of people that had never been associated with one another in anything like this came together to be able to … create change.
“Unfortunately,” Milstone said, “the story doesn’t end there.”
Tennessee’s Stay-At-Home order lasted about three weeks, and Milstone said it decreased the amount of COVID-19 cases in the state dramatically. His team issued a series of press releases warning against opening too quickly, but by the end of April, much of the state began to reopen without social distancing or proper safety precautions.
“Basically, we realize that, despite being able to turn down the volume for a month and a half, we have more work to be done,” Milstone said.
His team is now urging the Tennessee government to issue a mask mandate. Governor Lee has been unwilling to require masks in public so far, despite urging from Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Response Taskforce and the Tennesee Attorney General stating that a mandate would be constitutional.
Milstone and his team are currently holding press conferences and organizing people to write letters to the governor in favor of a mask mandate.
“It’s just a very difficult time for everybody. But [masks are] such a simple fix. It’s such a juxtaposition to Gretchen Whitmer,” he said, referencing Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who issued an executive order requiring masks in Michigan’s enclosed public spaces at the end of April. Tennessee has seen nearly 125,000 cases of the virus this year, while over 98,000 have been logged in Michigan.
Milstone moved to Tennessee in 1994 for his medical residency, but he grew up in Lathrup Village and attended medical school at Wayne State University. His father used to be a fundraiser for the Jewish Welfare Foundation, and though his parents now live in Florida, he still has family in the metro Detroit area. During the pandemic, missing Michigan has taken on a new meaning for Milstone.
“I think one of the interesting juxtapositions is just showing the demographic data difference in terms of where we [in Tennessee] are with the pandemic versus Michigan. I would love to be Michigan,” Milstone said. “Michigan, to me, represents what we should be.”
In addition to his advocacy work, Milstone has spent the pandemic working directly with COVID-19 patients.
“In practicing medicine for 25 years, I personally have never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything so communicative, so it’s so easy to catch. And I’ve never seen something that picks certain people to make them really sick and picks other people to cause no symptoms whatsoever.”
But Milstone remains optimistic that the virus will eventually be contained across the globe through better treatments and viable vaccines.
“I think that that with time and effort, we will get better than where we are right now,” he said.