Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Faith Pruitt, 5, stands outside the East Lake Courts Community Center as her mother Dominique tries to put a mask on her two-year-old brother Nehemiah so that they could receive a free COVID-19 test from the Tennessee National Guard in May.

"It's clear the house is on fire and we're still lighting matches."

That was Dr. Melissa McPheeters, a Vanderbilt University research professor and epidemiologist, talking last week of Tennessee's ignominious first-place standing in the nation for the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. She also was speaking of our increasing coronavirus positivity rate which now tops 18%.

Health experts say the positivity rate should be under 5%, and McPheeters' says our much higher rate indicates many more cases may be going unrecognized, contributing to the state's virus wildfire. She finds this especially concerning given that Tennesseans have access to free, asymptomatic testing, she added.

Among the lit matches we're still tossing on the bonfire is the state's failure to do more than just "urge" mask wearing and social distancing. Gov. Bill Lee has spurned calls for a statewide mask mandate, and some of his fellow Republicans in the Legislature say that even Lee's allowance for local jurisdictions to order face coverings goes against ideals of freedom.

Freedom to get and give COVID-19? Go figure.

But speaking of lighting still more matchs — maybe even tossing in some gasoline — while our COVID house burns, Hamilton County school officials recently announced that we will reopen schools in January for the second semester with about 7,250 more in-person learning students than were in attendance during the first semester.

Never mind that just last week, all learning in our schools was moved online because of the virus surge from Thanksgiving gatherings. Never mind that only about 40 of our 79 schools had no COVID closures last semester. Never mind that on Wednesday 1,018 students or student family members had active or suspected COVID cases, along with 229 teachers and staff members.

What's more, Hamilton County broke multiple coronavirus records last week in new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and ICU cases. On Tuesday alone, we logged 510 new cases, 3,576 active cases, 183 confirmed hospitalizations and 46 intensive care cases.

Now we plan to reopen schools on Jan. 6 with 7,250 additional students — almost half of those who last fall opted for total remote schooling — coming back into classes for in-person learning? Right after whatever Christmas and New Year's gatherings they attended?

We are reminded of a wise comment often attributed to Albert Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

And no wonder. Although our health experts implore us all day every day to wear our masks, social distance, stay home, don't give in to COVID fatigue and don't think the virus is behind us now that vaccines are beginning to trickle out, far too many of our elected leaders and community leaders are modeling something completely different.

Be honest. It's easy to stoke COVID fatigue when we're bombarded with local and national shopping ads, festival announcements and Christmas tree lightings as though nothing is amiss. On Friday nights and Saturdays, we watch football teams open stadiums to crowds not following social distancing recommendations. Hundreds don't even mask up.

We see our national leaders — at least the Republican ones — hold public rallies and parties where no one masks and social distancing might as well be defined as sitting or standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

We see our governor — another Republican — remain unmoved as Tennessee's virus blaze has become the ashes of 5,560 people. On Wednesday, Tennessee's total COVID-19 cases numbered just under 460,900, with an average daily increase of 7,901 cases a day — a 68% rise from the average two weeks earlier.

No wonder reasonable people are confused and frustrated.

"For the sake of love of God, @GovBillLee, are you planning on doing anything here? Anything at all?" tweeted Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. "The entire state is a hot spot."

And truly it is. Tennessee's shape, as defined by blood-red counties, stands out starkly on a New York Times virus tracking map colored by data from state and local health agencies.

Yarbro's tweet goes on to say the situation "can't be blamed on national or regional trends. The current outbreak is clearly worse in the jurisdiction for which you are the governor. Lead!"

Make no mistake, we applaud Hamilton County schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his team for doing as well as they have with what they've been given. And looking ahead to vaccines eventually becoming available for some high school students, says our schools will follow Gov. Lee's guidance: Vaccines will be a "personal choice" for students and teachers.

School officials also told the Times Free Press editors last week that they have based their second semester school reopening plans, in part, on a survey a few weeks ago of parents — parents who surely are just as COVID-fatigued (and kid-fatigued) as the rest of us. We all long for schools, businesses and our lives to be reopened.

But how does it make sense that in January, when we know from experience and common sense that the most illness will be flying around, we're going to open schools further?

Johnson said he's following the state's lead and the parents' survey answers. But we see where those leads have brought us already. The mall parking lots are full, and weary shop venders are left on their own to try enforcing Hamilton's countywide indoor mask mandate.

Are we really willing to keep spiraling down while the virus keeps climbing?