Note: This story was updated on Sept. 8 to include a response from a commissioner who did not reply previously to the Times Free Press survey.
Although the mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County are both vaccinated against COVID-19, the inoculation status of the city council and county commission is less clear-cut.
On the commission, seven members told the Times Free Press in a survey that they are vaccinated, one said she is not and one did not answer.
On the council, four said they are vaccinated or getting vaccinated, and five did not answer.
The matter of elected official vaccinations came to the fore two weeks ago when city Mayor Tim Kelly — fully vaccinated — got a "breakthrough" case of COVID-19, which is when someone who got the shot gets infected.
Kelly, 54, has advocated "getting more shots in arms" since his election, rolling out community vaccination events and a $1,000 weekly Vax4Cash sweepstakes to encourage locals.
"After experiencing mild, allergy-like symptoms earlier today, I took a COVID-19 test out of an abundance of caution — that test result came back positive," he said on Aug. 18. "I am grateful to be fully vaccinated, as my symptoms are barely noticeable; without a vaccine, my symptoms would be much worse."
Since he was largely unfazed by the virus, Kelly said he planned to spend 14 days in isolation working from home, reading, writing and generally making "lemonade out of lemons."
He and his doctor have discussed how his "very mild" case — which has consisted of a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing and a temporary loss of taste and smell — could have been much worse without the vaccine.
"And certainly that conforms with all the evidence that we've seen thus far," Kelly told the Times Free Press, noting that he never hesitated to get the vaccine once it became available to him in late spring.
"As soon as my age range came up, I hopped in and did it," Kelly said. "I have a lot of friends that are doctors and did my research and to me it's a simple benefit-risk calculation. It was no tough one for me."
Kelly said he encourages those who are hesitant to "do [their] homework" from credible sources and even talk to fellow skeptics who decided to get the vaccine.
"And, you know, talk to somebody else who might have been hesitant and went ahead and got it, and see if they regret it," Kelly said. "I don't think you'll find a person."
One such example is City Councilman Anthony Byrd.
Byrd, 46, got his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, after months of hesitation.
"Well, you know about the Tuskegee experiment, right?" Byrd said, when asked about his hesitation.
The Tuskegee study was conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. Several hundred Black men from Alabama were unknowingly left untreated for syphilis between 1932 and 1972.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the participants did not provide informed consent. They were misled by researchers who said they were being treated for "bad blood," which the CDC describes as "a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue."
In exchange for participation, they were provided free medical exams, meals and burial insurance. The true nature of the experiment was not made public until The Associated Press published an article about it in 1972.
The infamous experiment has contributed to distrust of public health measures among many Black Americans, including Byrd.
"It's just the history of government and how things have been done to African Americans over the years," Byrd said. "That set me back and scared me and scared my family."
"And then, the fact that the FDA had not approved the vaccine, that scared me and held me back in, plus how the COVID vaccine came about so quickly," Byrd said. "So all of these things played a part in making me hesitate to get the vaccine."
In addition to his skepticism, Byrd believed he had some immunity after contracting a relatively mild case of COVID-19 several months ago.
"Four or five, maybe six months ago I woke up one morning and I couldn't taste. I had really bad chills and I thought I had the flu or whatever, but it turned out to be COVID," Byrd said. "I just isolated and luckily I'm healthy, so it just passed.
"But in a sense, I thought I was immune to it and couldn't get it again because I've already had COVID, and I thought I'd build up the antibodies for it."
But in light of recent approval of the vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration and the impacts of COVID on people close to him, Byrd had a change of heart.
"In the midst of all of that, I have lost two friends — one being a guy named Tony Brown, and Chris Ramsey — to COVID," Byrd said. "And I'm now having friends and family members that are in the hospital now fighting for their lives.
"I have one friend whose kids pretty much had to say goodbye from FaceTime to their father, because they can't get to him, and he's about to die."
So Byrd, a father of three, decided it was time to get vaccinated.
"And so, me having children, I just was thinking about my son and my daughters," Byrd said. "I was like, 'man, for that to happen to them, goodbye through a FaceTime, or them to have to see me hooked up to all these tubes, you know, just me laying there — why not go ahead and get the vaccine to give me protection?'"
On Wednesday of last week, Byrd said, his mother, his grandmother and his stepfather all got the vaccine. On Thursday, he said his arm was a little sore at the injection site, but that he had felt fine and was confident in his decision.
"With all the conspiracy theories, I get it. And it's definitely something to consider. And I think we are all covered by the Most High, but you know that you still have to take care of yourself. You have to put the work in," Byrd said. "And I just think, you know, getting vaccinated is us putting the work in for the future, for our kids. And people say we're guinea pigs, that it's not safe, but I think we are the ones who need to make things safer for our kids in the future."
"So whatever situation that I have to go through by getting the shots, I'm willing to do it for the love of my children so then maybe in the future, they don't have to get the shot."
Elected officials and vaccine status
— Mayor Jim Coppinger, R-Hixson, is fully vaccinated and encourages constituents to talk to medical professionals if they have any concerns.
“I’m a big proponent of vaccines and I’ll get my booster shot just as soon as I can,” Coppinger said. “I don’t expect people to take the word of politicians or public figures, but if you have any doubt, then you should consult with your own personal physician or pharmacist.”
— Commission Chairman Chip Baker, R-Chattanooga, is fully vaccinated and encourages people to do their own research before making a decision on the vaccine.
“I was trained as a biologist,” he said. “And you know, I spent 20 years in the health care industry. So I have a penchant to follow the science, read science journals like the Journal of American Medical Association, or New England Journal of Medicine. And so, you know, in the fact that the mRNA process started over 20 years ago. That’s how I based my decision. I certainly talked to my physician, you know, but it’s a personal choice.”
— Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Chattanooga, is fully vaccinated and says it is a moral obligation to protect others from COVID-19.
“It’s your moral duty to wear a mask and get vaccinated. At this point it should be a moral issue, not a partisan issue.”
— Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, R-Soddy Daisy, said he has been vaccinated since January.
"I support and encourage others to do what they can to protect themselves and everyone around them," he said.
— Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, D-Chattanooga, was fully vaccinated this spring and encourages constituents to do research and use a variety of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID.
“It’s still very scary, and one of the things I’ve been telling people, even from the commission, is the importance of using all the tools in the tool box,” said Geter, who’s had COVID twice, including once after the vaccine. “It’s not for me to persuade a person to get vaccinated, but my message is to be informed.”
— Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, said he is vaccinated but that constituents should seek recommendations from their physicians.
“I talked to my doctor, and my doctor, he advised me to get it, but I am not trying to push anyone in any direction. It should be a personal choice that a person makes after a discussion with their physician.”
— Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Chattanooga, is fully vaccinated and encourages constituents to get the vaccine.
“I am fully vaccinated, looking to get my booster shot right now. I strongly advocate for the usage of wearing the mask and getting the vaccine, and I will stop advocating for masks and the vaccine when the people in my district, and this county and this country, stop dying.”
— Commissioner Greg Martin, R-Hixson, declined to share his vaccination status and said it is a matter of personal choice.
“That’s an individual matter that people need to make with their medical professional.”
— Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Chattanooga, is fully vaccinated and encourages constituents to do the same.
“I’m vaccinated and I can’t wait to get my third shot. And, you know, hopefully now with FDA approval, we’ll start to see more and more people changing their tune and deciding to get vaccinated.”
— Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, is not vaccinated, but says she is not against the vaccine.
“I’m not wanting to take medicine, I’m not wanting to run out and just jump on a vaccine or something. And fortunately, I have seemed to stay relatively healthy. And so I’m thankful for that. But now that’s not to say there’s not some time in the future that I will make the decision to take it. But it’s something everyone has to decide with their doctor.”
City of Chattanooga
— Mayor Tim Kelly is fully vaccinated and encourages constituents to take the vaccine.
“Do your homework from credible sources, and weigh the alternatives and the risks. I think if people do that, credibly speaking, they will [get vaccinated].”
— Councilwoman Carol Berz is fully vaccinated and thinks it is a moral obligation to get the vaccine.
“This isn’t a political issue, it’s a health issue. And I think it’s very selfish and self-centered of people not to get vaccinated when they could protect other people as well.”
— Councilman Anthony Byrd has received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine and thinks it’s a necessary part of taking care of one’s self.
“I think we are all covered by the Most High, but you know that you still have to take care of yourself, you have to put the work in.”
— Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
— Councilwoman Raquetta Dotley did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
— Chairman Chip Henderson declined to share his vaccination status and said it is a matter of personal choice.
“This needs to be a conversation that you have with your health care provider, not what you read in the newspaper about what some politician has done. If somebody wants to have a private conversation with me, I’m more than willing to share that information with them, but I’m trying my best not to politicize this pandemic.”
— Councilman Isiah Hester is fully vaccinated and actively encourages constituents to get the vaccine.
“I think it should be upon every individual to get vaccinated. Until we hit that 70% threshold, I think it is essential.”
— Councilwoman Jenny Hill is fully vaccinated and encourages constituents to talk to their doctors about the vaccine.
“Everyone in my immediate family is vaccinated and extended family is vaccinated … I would encourage others to talk to their primary health care physician, the person that’s been their doctor all along that knows their health history, and find out what their doctor recommends for them.”
— Councilman Darrin Ledford did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
— Councilman Ken Smith did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Source: Times Free Press survey
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.