Gov. Lee warns COVID-19 vaccine 'will not cure foolish decisions' but continues to reject mask mandate

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee welcomes arrival of COVID-19 vaccines during Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, news conference at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. (Photo by Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday celebrated the start of COVID-19 vaccinations in Tennessee, but the Republican governor warned the vaccine "will not cure foolish decisions" about social gatherings and also criticized refusals by many residents to don masks in a state that's now a raging coronavirus hot spot.

"We do stand here to celebrate a tremendous breakthrough in this pandemic," Lee said as he joined Vanderbilt University Medical Center physicians and staff as an initial 56,500 Pfizer vaccinations start being distributed across the state. Another 115,000 Moderna tests are expected to come over the next two weeks.

But, Lee said, "there is a darkness before the dawn that's happening right here in Tennessee. We have to recognize that. Thanksgiving cases are surging. The holidays have caught up with us. Decisions that some made during Thanksgiving are having a severe reality in this hospital and all across Tennessee today."

The "one thing" the vaccine "will not cure is selfishness or indifference to what's happening to our neighbors around us," the governor added. "This vaccine will not cure foolish decisions about how we gather. It won't cure an attitude or a refusal to wear a mask. And it won't cure the idea that 'I will take my chances and that will not impact someone else's life.'"

The governor, however, continued to reject what medical and political critics see as a powerful remedy to the virus' rapid spread here: A statewide mask mandate.

But the governor openly pleaded with residents to do so voluntarily.

"Let me be very clear to Tennesseans," Lee said. "We need you to wear a mask. If you haven't worn a mask, we need you to contemplate doing that. Wear a mask in honor of one of the 5,000 people who have died in this state, to honor the families of those who've had to struggle this year."

Asked by reporters why he continues to refuse to issue a statewide mask mandate - the governor has outsourced mask-wearing requirement decisions to mayors of 89 counties with state-run health departments as well as to six county-run health boards including Hamilton County's - Lee said "the tactics can be argued about, but the need for behavior is not to be argued about and I implore Tennesseans to step up and engage."

"Let me just say," he added, "we're not going to mandate how a family gathers at Thanksgiving. I want to be real clear about that. But what we will do is encourage Tennesseans to think hard about that."

The governor's comments drew condemnation from state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who in a tweet charged Lee was being "maddeningly irresponsible."

"@GovBillLee is scolding Tennesseans for our personal choices, when the Governor has neglected to provide consistent communication, failed to provide clear guidelines, and has let misinformation by his allies spread across the state like wildfire."

Priority on the vaccinations is initially being given to frontline healthcare workers, with staffers at Parkridge Medical Center in Chattanooga being among the first receiving shots on Thursday.

A day earlier, a group of physicians criticized Lee's continued refusal to issue a mask mandate. Dr. Jason Martin, a Middle Tennessee critical care physician who treats COVID-19 patients, pointedly said in a video message to Lee that "you've called on Tennesseans to do their part, to exercise personal responsibility in the fight against COVID-19, and now again, we join to ask you do the same.

"We've asked repeatedly for a mask mandate and other interventions so that Tennesseans can safely go to work, provide for their families, and send their kids to school," Martin said. "But Governor Lee, you've rejected the pleas of your health care experts. You've rejected the pleas of President Trump's White House COVID-19 Task Force."

On Tuesday, Tennessee's rate of new COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people was listed as the second highest on a rolling, seven-day period in the U.S. by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A day before that, the COVID Tracking Project projected Tennessee and Ohio as the only two places at that time on Earth with infection rates hitting 1,000 people per million.

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and heart-transplant surgeon, on Tuesday tweeted to urge a mask mandate.

"We are losing this battle in Tennessee and vaccines can't reverse in short term," Frist tweeted.

A new Vanderbilt University poll out this week found political polarization among Tennessee Republicans with Democrats and independents. Fifty-two percent of Republicans told pollsters they don't plan to change their holiday plans. And 22% of Republicans said they do not usually wear a mask or face covering in a store or public place. That compares to zero percent of Democrats saying they don't wear masks in public, with 11% of independents saying they don't wear masks in public.

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