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Staff Photo By C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during a March news conference at the Hamilton County Health Department to say the mask mandate will be extended one more month but will expire in late April.

This editorial was updated on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, at 3:22 p.m. to correct the link to the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee website.

Many Hamilton County residents have been looking forward to tomorrow morning since last July. It's the day when they can finally ditch the mask they've had to wear since last summer to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

When Mayor Jim Coppinger extended the county mask mandate last month, he said he would lift it on April 28.

Now it's up to us.

Businesses, manufacturing plants, schools and churches still can set their own mask requirements, but the requirement of people to wear masks or facial coverings over the mouth and nose "at all times when indoors in all public and private buildings and when outdoors," unless they can "substantially maintain appropriate social distancing from others outside of the person's household" will be lifted.

"As we said from the beginning," Coppinger said last month, "the mask mandate would be temporary, but [it] would stay in place until we could accomplish several things. And we feel like we have."

On Tuesday, he told this page what some of those things were — educating people on how to protect themselves, getting the economy reopened and people working again, and opening schools on time.

"[The mask mandate] was one of very few options we had," Coppinger said. "[The virus] was a crisis, and cases were going through the roof. It was the only choice we really had."

Eight and a half months later, he said, "we've done everything available to us to deal with the health crisis."

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ended local authority for county mayors in 89 of the state's 95 counties to require masks. He also asked the other six counties with independent health departments — Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Rutherford, Shelby and Sullivan — to lift mask mandates or other business restrictions no later than May 31.

Now, the task is getting vaccination needles in as many Hamilton County arms as quickly as is feasible.

As of Monday, 28% of county residents had been fully vaccinated, and more than 37% had at least one inoculation. The county is running a little ahead of the state, which, as of Monday, was reporting 24.3% of state residents had been fully vaccinated and 34.3% had at least one dose.

However, many vaccination slots — open for several weeks to anyone ages 16 and up — regularly go wanting, Coppinger said.

He understands some people oppose vaccines in general and some for religious reasons, but he said all others who are "hesitant need to think about their family, their friends, their coworkers."

One push those hesitant individuals may get, if they haven't already, may come from their health insurance company.

Several big insurers, according to Kaiser Health News, have begun charging patients for their portion of the cost of COVID-19 treatments. Last year when the virus set in, most insurance companies waived such cost-sharing. Now insurance companies are beginning to let those waivers expire.

UnitedHealth began rolling back its waivers last fall and ended them by March. Anthem and Aetna have now ended theirs.

Scott Wilson, a spokesman for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said as of June 1 "usual customer benefits and cost-share will apply to services to treat COVID-19." He said more information may be found on the company's website FAQ section (bcbstupdates.com).

The costs for those opposed to vaccines or who have put off getting the shot and then develop a serious case of the virus and wind up in the hospital "could be substantial," Kaiser Health News said.

Individuals who have not been vaccinated might want to think about that.

Testing and vaccinations are likely to remain free, according to the Kaiser report.

Coppinger said he didn't want to speculate on what might happen once the mask mandate was removed, but he emphasized the pandemic is not over.

"People have COVID fatigue, mask fatigue," he said. "They want for it to be over. I get that. But they don't need to let their guard down."

Coppinger said his biggest fear are the COVID-19 variants that have spread across the country. His medical advisory group tells him the more contagious variants are responsible for at least 90% of the new cases in Hamilton County.

"We have to be cautious," he said. "We don't want to go back with the amount of people we had in the hospital (which reached as high as 116 on Dec. 8, 2020). We know what we have to do. We want people to adhere to what they know will protect their families."

So, the mask mandate may be about to expire, but the coronavirus has not. It's now up to us to do our part to make sure it never needs to be reinstated.

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