Recently, following the news as it relates to COVID-19 is a bit like watching a tennis match. Except, of course, this is no game. Lives are at stake, especially those of our children and grandchildren, who are the ones who will pay the price when it comes to mask-wearing in schools. With some Tennessee counties issuing a mask mandate to students and teachers as our children return to school, we’ve seen average citizens threaten health care workers and educators who recommended the mandate. We’ve seen our state government working to strip power from local school systems and health departments, and we’ve seen Tennessee’s governor getting pushback from the president.
All this for what? Politics?
Gov. Bill Lee knows the COVID-19 numbers and how the virus is impacting our young people. Tennessee’s health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, said the Delta variant is spreading quickly among children. The week of Aug. 1, there were 5,054 cases in Tennessee’s children — about 21.4 percent of all cases. That number jumped up to 27 percent by the week of Aug. 8. Last week, WPLN reported that within the first 15 days of August, Tennessee had 1,023 new COVID-related hospitalizations, and that nearly 60 of those were children.
Despite these numbers, when several counties in Tennessee issued mask mandates to return children as safely as possible to the classroom, Gov. Lee issued an executive order to override the mandates. Davidson and Shelby counties will require masks anyway, but in doing so will likely meet with more trouble. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said the state will “exercise remedial options” if local school systems don’t comply.
The governor even disagrees with a letter he and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn received from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, which read: “Tennessee’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 … may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.”
I can’t help but wonder if the governor’s recent endorsement from former President Donald Trump is playing into all this. I wonder if he and the other candidates running for reelection in 2022 will pay a price for their position on COVID-19. What we do know is that not advocating for vaccines or safety protocols can cost lives. It’s the unvaccinated who are getting the sickest, and even if some argue that mask-wearing doesn’t protect 100 percent, it can at least offer some deterrent. Think of how flu cases have gone down this year, even during the pandemic. Masks and social distancing help slow the spread of viruses.
In an open letter dated Aug. 17, nearly 6,000 doctors and health care professionals asked Lee to rethink his stand. The letter states: “As trained healthcare providers, we strongly oppose Governor Lee’s Executive Order. Scientific evidence demonstrates that masks can decrease the spread of COVID-19. Scientific evidence demonstrates that children can be infected with COVID-19 and that children can spread the infection to adults. … The Delta variant is significantly more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, resulting in more children becoming infected.”
On Aug. 20, another open letter from the heads of 10 different Middle Tennessee hospitals and health care systems implored unvaccinated people to protect themselves from COVID-19. Nashville’s own WTN talk radio host Phil Valentine, who frequently spread skepticism over the vaccine, ultimately died from COVID-19 after realizing too late it could have saved his life. My heart goes out to his family. His brother Mark Valentine warns: “Look at the dadgum data. I know if [Phil] were able to tell you this, he would tell you, ‘Go get vaccinated. Quit worrying about the politics. Quit worrying about all the conspiracy theories.’ ” Cases have reached such an elevated level that Dr. Piercey has asked Tennesseans not to visit an emergency room unless the emergency is absolutely dire.
Lee, upon seeing this vast increase in COVID cases, should be concerning himself with saving the lives of Tennesseans — our children and our grandchildren. Will the open letter from health care professionals change his mind? If a letter from President Biden’s administration hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
Last week, Biden tweeted: “We will not sit by as Governors try to block or intimidate educators protecting kids against COVID-19. This isn’t about politics. This is about keeping our kids safe and taking on this virus together.”
My continued prayers to Phil Valentine’s family.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.