NASHVILLE, TN – The U.S, India, and Brazil have the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world. According to the COVID tracker at John Hopkins University, the number of daily cases is higher than it was a year ago; the number of daily deaths is higher than it was a year ago; 3.5 billion vaccine doses have been delivered but the pandemic continues largely unabated around the globe.
Last week, more than 1,000 new cases were reported every hour in the U.S. The Delta variant is now the predominant strain in the U.S, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Tennesseans remain at high risk from COVID-19 according to the NY Times. Risk levels are based on the number of newly reported cases and positive tests in the last 14 days. Tennessee reported 13% fewer tests and a 340% increase in new cases, the highest increase among all states.
As bad as that sounds, the risk of catching Covid-19 are even greater in Arkansas and Missouri. Risk levels are very high or extremely high in both states. Arkansas reported a 114% uptick in new cases and 120% increase in deaths in the last two weeks. Missouri reported a 117% increase in new cases and 28% increase in deaths.
The vaccination rate in Arkansas is 35%; in Missouri it is 40%; in Tennessee it is 38%. CDC data indicate that infections and hospitalizations are increasing in states where vaccination rates are low.
“When we look at the map of counties where we have lower vaccination rates, that is where we are seeing what I would consider the fires starting to pop up with the new variants,” said Lauri Hicks. She is an epidemiologist in the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Hicks also teaches at Brown University.
Hicks said that the CDC is sounding the alarm with public health officials and policy makers to prevent the forest fires that they are seeing from spreading to other states where vaccination rates area low. The CDC is the country’s lead agency on public health. Every state has its own health department and they generally follow CDC advice and adhere to its guidelines.
“In our role as a federal agency, the states are paramount in many of those decisions. We are all the time providing the right type of advice and direction to those elected authorities in all jurisdictions around the country… We have meetings with the health directors weekly. We have meetings with the elected officials every week or two and they get briefings with the correct information from our experts and then they make the decisions that they make,” said Dr. José T. Montero, head of CDC’s Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support
In other words, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
While the CDC can, and did, impose a nationwide eviction moratorium due to the pandemic that ends July 31, it has not mandated the wearing of masks. While the Biden administration is providing enough vaccines to get everyone over 12 vaccinated, it has not required it.
Each state and county implements its own public health measures and CDC recommendations. Sometimes local jurisdictions make good decisions based on facts and science. Last week, for example, rising infections prompted Los Angeles County to re-impose a mask mandate that had been lifted just two weeks ago.
Last week, Governor Bill Lee abruptly fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. Fiscus did not go quietly. She wrote a scathing public letter and her story got headlines around the country. (See Mask)
As the Tribune has reported, the Lee administration has handled COVID testing and case tracking poorly. (See Testing)
“The reality is we need to continue to be tested and to have more active and engaged testing to identify asymptomatic people who may trigger an outbreak,” Montéro said.
In recent months, Tennessee has had less testing, not more. Lee has also refused to expand Medicaid that would cover an estimated 226,200 of the state’s uninsured and he has stopped giving his weekly COVID-19 press briefings.
Lee was among the first governors to embrace former President Trump’s call to open up the economy in May 2020 with disastrous results. On July 3, 2021 he cancelled the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, cutting off $300 weekly benefits to thousands of workers. Congress allocated funding for the PEUC until September 6, 2021.
In Lee’s hands public health doesn’t need any enemies. The same can be said of Missouri Governor Michael Parson and Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. Those states and 20 others have Republican trifectas: the Republican Party controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Red states that went for Trump, generally have lower vaccination rates, higher per capita coronavirus cases, deaths, and hospitalizations. Those states harbor large numbers of people who think Biden stole the 2020 election, the Associated Press can’t be trusted, vaccines are dangerous, and Dr. Anthony Fauci is not the country’s leading official on infectious diseases but a dupe of China. There is no data on how many of those people believe U.S. astronauts never landed on the moon.