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Contributed Photo / Will the decisions the state of Tennessee is making surrounding the COVID-19 virus cause us to once again need a mask?

Two months before most of the nation received stay-at-home and work-from-home guidance in mid-March 2020 due to the potential of COVID-19, the Tennessee Health Operations Center was activated.

Still about a month before most of the shutdowns, Tennessee became one of only five states in the nation to complete the verification of a COVID-19 test at its Department of Public Health Laboratory.

In late May 2020, the state outkicked its goal of getting 6% of the state's population tested for COVID-19, having completed more than 400,000 tests since March.

Today, instead of being proactive about a global pandemic that threatens to rage again after being somewhat tamed, Tennessee looks like the backward state it is often painted to be by national writers who haven't bothered to do their research.

With the firing of the state's vaccine-preventable diseases and immunizations director over outreach to teens about getting a vaccine, and what seems to be an almost palpable fear by some lawmakers of vaccine information even being seen by teens, we look woefully out of step.

By all rights, the immunizations director, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, had done a commendable job, and public health officials have been quick to say so.

And, in recommending the Pfizer vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds, she had been following the guidance of federal regulators — and her boss.

"We have been anticipating this decision for several weeks," Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said in a May statement, "and I am thrilled we can begin offering the Pfizer vaccine to children in this age group. As a mother and a pediatrician, I believe this vaccine to be safe and effective for children, and I hope other parents across the state are relieved to learn this option is available."

But when criticism came over the outreach advertising, and lawmakers in a joint Government Operations Committee meeting said the ads were tantamount to peer pressure, neither Piercey nor Gov. Bill Lee stood by Fiscus.

(READ MORE: Tennessee vaccine chief fired despite prior positive evaluations)

Lee said only that the state will "continue to encourage folks to seek access — adults for their children, and adults for themselves, to make the personal choice for [a] vaccine."

And that, we believe, is all the ads directed toward teens were saying. They were conversation starters, if anything. "Mom, I saw this ad about the COVID-19 vaccine. Is that anything you think I should get?"

Yes, a 37-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court Ruling allows minors as young as 14 to seek medical care without their parents' or guardians' consent, but we think such a case would be extremely rare.

One of the critics of the teen outreach, House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, said the ads were unnecessary because of the high survival rate of members of the age group if they contracted COVID-19.

He's right, but that's where we think all virus vaccine critics miss the boat. Those who receive a vaccine get a high dose of immunity against COVID-19, but they don't pass immunity on to their friends, family members and individuals who are much more vulnerable against the virus than they are.

Indeed, we think a better way to have handled concerns about the outreach to teens would simply have been a retooling of the ads, if, in fact, that was even necessary.

Instead of centering on a young teen child who has had a vaccine, they might have focused on teens leading a normal life — talking with their friends, listening to music or playing ball, perhaps. A voiceover might have said: "Want to get back to what you like to do best? Talk to your parents or guardians about whether a COVID-19 vaccine is right for you."

We don't believe Fiscus had to lose her job over this, and we don't believe teens need to be shut out from vaccine information.

The two situations together look especially short-sighted with the rise of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus. Daily statistics show how effective the vaccines are against the variant and how those who have not been vaccinated are the ones who are contracting it.

Frankly, we don't want to endure a future where masks become part of our daily wear again, where restaurants and shops are closed and where large gatherings are prohibited.

Tennessee, though, is in the bottom 10 of states by percentage of people who have been fully vaccinated, and new COVID-19 cases in the state are on a sharp rise.

Thus, it is time for the state, from the governor to the health department to legislators, to become leaders in the fight again. We can be both proactive and protective in making sure COVID-19 doesn't make new inroads here. But we can't do it if we're busy living down to the stereotype of a fearful, stubborn, backward Southern state.

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