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Some see political roots in Tennessee’s Covid battles

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Dr. Briggs said the governor is trying to appeal to rural voters who are increasingly hostile to health measures like masks and vaccines because of “the misinformation and disinformation” they hear in conservative media.

Updated

9/20/2021, 8:56 p.m. ET

“He’s trying to walk the tightrope between what he thinks would mitigate the effects of the disease and the political reality that this radical group could make it difficult to win an election,” said Dr. Briggs.

Understand US vaccination and mask requirements

    • Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, a reversal of the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are against mandatory vaccines for students but are more likely to support masking requirements for students, teachers, and staff who are not vaccinated.
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to have a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13th. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, with no weekly testing option. Municipal hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.

Any reference to a mandate could alienate the governor’s political base, lead the legislature to oppose him and potentially pose a major key challenge that Geer said is “the only way not to be re-elected”.

Mr Lee signed an executive order last month that undermined efforts by local officials to require masks in schools, a precaution recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opponents battled the order in court, and a federal judge ruled in their favor on Friday preventing the governor’s order of Shelby County, which includes Memphis, from going into effect.

Bill Christian, a spokesman for the state health department, said in an email that a study in the spring of 2021 identified certain populations in Tennessee plagued by vaccination reluctance and that the department was running ads to reach out to unvaccinated people.

“We continue to see increasing vaccination rates in every age group,” said Christian.

Tennessee has been here before. Last December, before vaccines were widely available, the state had the highest rate of new cases per capita and a high number of deaths. At that time, too, Mr. Lee spoke out against national mask requirements.

“This is the by-product of a long and frustrating battle with politics over professional health care,” said Larsen Jay, a Knox County commissioner who was the only Republican to vote against the local health authority’s disenfranchisement in March. His powers have largely been delegated to the district mayor, who has refused to issue new pandemic restrictions.

“We have really knowledgeable and skilled medical professionals who have given us the tools and a roadmap to end this pandemic,” said Jay. “But somehow we created people who research the Internet and weigh that against people with 40 years of medical qualifications.”

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