It is with great dismay that we read about COVID-19’s resurgence and the growing threat of new variants. If you’ve been tracking the news with any regularity you have likely read that in mid-July, our state’s infection rate more than tripled over a three-week period — one of the largest increases across the nation.
On July 16, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tweeted that Tennessee ranks 44th in percentage of population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, calling that statistic “discouraging and deadly.” He also stated, “Tennessee can stand by science and save lives,” said Frist, “or we can further a dangerous trend that is eroding public health and trust in government.”
The former senator is not the only one taking note of the crisis and the seeming lack of concern on the part of some GOP lawmakers — and it’s not just Tennesseans noticing. Earlier this month on The Late Show, host Stephen Colbert made Tennessee and its GOP lawmakers the butt of the joke. “The Volunteer State has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country, and they aim to keep it that way,” said Colbert. “Because this week after pressure from Republican lawmakers, the Tennessee Department of Health will halt all adolescent vaccine outreach — not just for coronavirus, but all diseases.” The audience booed. Colbert also aired a satirical tourism commercial that stated in part, “There are just so many things to do and catch in Tennessee.” It ended with, “Tennessee, the last place you’ll ever visit.” The audience laughed.
It’s certainly not ideal for Tennessee to bear the brunt of national jokes or appear as though we cannot take care of our own — or that we don’t have the good sense to do so. Of course we don’t want tourists to vacation elsewhere when they would normally come here. But you can bet there are some who, upon seeing The Late Show and the headlines about our state’s poor COVID response, have changed their plans. Gov. Bill Lee did bother to give a press conference on July 21 saying he was not against the vaccine, saying it’s “the number-one tool that we have to continue to manage COVID-19, including the Delta variant.” I just hope it’s not too little too late.
Tennessee has seen large increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths. Eleven of our counties have been noted as “very high risk.” According to Fox 17, “These counties in order of infection rate are: Franklin, Davidson, Shelby, Tipton, Gibson, Cumberland, Sumner, Hamilton, Lawrence, Henry and Hawkins.”
The Delta variant is spreading across the nation, and particularly in areas that have low vaccination rates. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says the resurgence is “becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” NPR’s Allison Aubrey reports that “the Delta variant is estimated to be up to 225 percent more transmissible than the original strain. “Once it finds pockets of unprotected people, it can spread very quickly,” Aubrey notes. “In fact, 97 percent of people who are hospitalized from COVID now are unvaccinated.”
As most mask-wearing and social distancing protocols fall by the wayside, with many feeling like COVID-19 is over, the surge in cases continues. According to researchers at Georgetown University’s Bansal Lab, “The more geographically clustered unvaccinated individuals are, the higher the chance that an unvaccinated individual will interact with another unvaccinated individual, and the higher the chance that a disease transmission event will occur.”
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s former medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs, has said the administration’s handling of the pandemic has been one of complacency. Fiscus said: “Gov. Lee should be sending a strong message that Tennesseans need to get protected, just like he is, with a safe and effective vaccine.”
“The COVID-19 vaccine is the best tool we have,” said Fiscus, “but like any good tool, it’s only effective when used.”
Many fear the outcome of taking a vaccine, or think they still wouldn’t be protected. There is a need for accurate information to be distributed, and it needs to come from Tennessee’s state leaders. Without their advocating and encouraging — which they can do without imposing on personal choice — the results will continue to speak for themselves. Tennesseans will continue to avoid getting vaccinated, and worse than being made fun of on national television, we will see more sickness and more unnecessarily lost lives.
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.