Last week, 34 percent of coronavirus tests reported to the Tennessee Department of Health were positive, up from 31.74 percent in the last week of December. It’s not a happy New Year trend, and it underscores the poor leadership Tennessee has gotten from its Republican governor and legislature.
In November, Gov. Bill Lee allowed Tennessee’s state of emergency to expire. The state’s emergency status had allowed various departments and local governments to directly address pandemic-related problems, and last year, lawmakers passed legislation that restricts the authority of any local official to mandate masks — even in their own buildings. This “leadership” exacerbates our challenges and diminishes our ability to manage the sudden jump in infections from the Omicron variant of COVID-19. You have to wonder, what did the governor expect would be the result of his decisions?
Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey made an alarming observation about the Omicron variant in December: “In a span of two weeks it has gone [from] essentially no one to perhaps a projected 95 percent [of new cases in the South].” Piercey also said that of the three antibody treatments available, only one worked against the newest variant, and doctors will have to be discerning, offering the treatment only to those who need it most.
We all want COVID-19 to just be gone. But it is not gone.
Last week, Tennessee hospitals were treating about 2,000 COVID-19 patients, and patient levels have increased by about 75 percent since Christmas. The highest positivity rate is 46 percent in Shelby County. The state’s COVID-19 dashboard for tracking the pandemic in Davidson County shows a dramatic increase in the number of cases between mid-December and early January. Nashville averaged 1,165.5 new cases per day in the two-week period ending Jan. 4. That’s up from 225 cases per day in the previous two-week period!
Despite these numbers, the governor still is not offering any real support.
The Tennessean reported last week that the governor says he is encouraging people to get vaccinated and get their boosters. But he has also stripped authority from local governments and school districts when it comes to issuing mask requirements — even though it’s been proven that masks can reduce the spread of the virus. The governor believes that we should find the fact that the hospitalization rate has not yet shot up “encouraging.” All this while his own health commissioner is telling us how fast this thing is spreading, and that hospitals are running low on antibody treatments. I’m not sure where being “encouraged” is relevant. If anything, it seems we should be taking more precautions, not just thinking it will all go away because the hospitals aren’t quite full yet.
The governor should be at least a little embarrassed by his “handling” of COVID and the results we see — or rather, fail to see — now that his administration has decided to no longer report case numbers on a daily basis. Commissioner Piercey says the abandonment of daily reporting is being done to incorporate ongoing monitoring of the pandemic with the department’s pre-pandemic priorities. That sounds believable to some, I am sure, but this change will make it harder for Tennesseans to track the virus as it surges across the state. It also interrupts the statistics and data relied upon by journalists. If the governor and his administration are hoping that dragging out reporting times will alleviate embarrassment, it won’t work. Frankly, we could become the butt of even more late-night talk show jokes than we’ve already experienced.
We all are suffering from COVID exhaustion and want to go back to life the way it was before the pandemic. I am confident that we will get through this, because that is who we are. But will things ever be the same?
Currently, Tennessee is averaging more than 10,000 new infections every day — and that’s not even factoring in any at-home tests, because those aren’t reported to the government.
Amid such numbers, it can be hard to remain optimistic or, to borrow the governor’s word, “encouraged.” Especially when our state leadership is seemingly working against everything that helps. Still, one thing we can hold onto is the fact that we’ve been through tough times already. We’ve seen wars, recessions, unforeseen events and even previous pandemics. But each time, our country bounced back. Our economy became stronger and more resilient. To me, that is a reason we can be encouraged. The fact that hospitals aren’t full yet — not so much.
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.