Last week, the Centers for Disease Control found that Tennessee led the nation in new COVID-19 cases per capita. Though we have since improved, in the week leading up to Sept. 15, our state saw an average of more than 8,300 new coronavirus infections every day, with a disturbing number of children contracting the disease. One hospital in Memphis went from treating five pediatric patients to 33 within a few weeks — and in August, three children died from the virus.
Why is our state performing so poorly in managing this disease? A prime reason is of course the low vaccination rate among Tennesseans. To date, we’ve seen only about 44 percent fully vaccinated. According to a Vanderbilt Medical report from earlier this month, 190 out of 218 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were unvaccinated — and none of the 17 patients on ventilators were vaccinated.
After decades of work to make Tennessee one of the most attractive states in the country, we’re now known as the state where residents are the most likely to catch COVID-19. Even prior to being the absolute worst in the nation for COVID cases, we were the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows. In July, Stephen Colbert noted that Tennessee “has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country — and they aim to keep it that way.”
Gov. Bill Lee’s strategy has been to take care of himself and let everyone else fend for themselves. He received his vaccination quietly, when doing so publicly could have gone far in encouraging others to follow suit. He has not promoted mask wearing, and his executive order to override the authority of school districts that wished to mandate masks for children has met with stiff opposition. On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden announced an emergency rule requiring businesses with 100 or more employees to test their employees weekly or require vaccinations. Lee joined GOP governors from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to strike back at Biden’s attempts to slow the spread of the virus. These other three states also have some of the highest COVID-19 rates and lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Biden spoke to the nation about using the tools at our disposal to combat and curb the COVID-19 disease sooner than later. “If we raise our vaccination rate, protect ourselves and others with masking and expanded testing, and identify people who are infected, we can and we will turn the tide on COVID-19,” said the president. He also noted that many are frustrated with the 80 million Americans who remain unvaccinated, even though the vaccine is “safe, effective and free.” His words echoed the thoughts of many health professionals who’ve seen firsthand that “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Biden also has to square off with those fighting against his administration’s efforts. “There are elected officials actively working to undermine the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “Instead of encouraging people to get vaccinated and mask up, they’re ordering mobile morgues for the unvaccinated dying from COVID in their communities.” Unfortunately, our governor has been called to task by many doctors and medical professionals for doing this very thing. Biden noted that “based on available data from the summer, only one of out of every 160,000 fully vaccinated Americans was hospitalized for COVID per day.”
We all value human life. I believe we all prefer our family members, friends and neighbors to stay safe and healthy. That sentiment should not be political, yet this pandemic seems to have people thinking COVID-19 is partisan politics. It isn’t. As Biden pointed out: “These pandemic politics … are making people sick, causing unvaccinated people to die. We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of protecting the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal.”
If you’d like to know whether or not vaccines work, look to Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts, all of which have more than two-thirds of their residents fully vaccinated. These states show the lowest new COVID-19 cases per capita, according to CDC data. This is not a fluke. The states with more vaccinated residents have fewer COVID-19 cases.
Commercial Appeal writer Tonyaa J. Weathersbee surmises that Gov. Lee’s lack of political experience “may be one reason why children now make up about 40 percent of Tennessee’s COVID-19 cases,” and that Lee’s strategies contributed to our being No. 1 in new infections. Weathersbee notes that Lee’s “inexperience, or rather, indifference, on how government is supposed to work,” can “lead to a body count.”
I’m unsure of how Gov. Lee thinks his strategy to take care of Tennesseans during this pandemic is working. What I know is he needs a new one.
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.