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Demetrius Freeman, The New York Times file photo / A masked replica of the Statue of Liberty on the front porch of a Brooklyn home in April. Tennesseans are among nation's least likely to wear mask, study shows.

Tennesseans have long bridled at our stereotypical image — hillbillies.

But we know there are many things in the traits of Appalachian and Volunteer State people to be proud of, to cherish, to pass on to our children. Sometimes, though, it seems we go out of our way to keep collecting dunce points toward earning all that's deplorable in the description of "hillbilly."

Tennesseans being among the least likely in the United States to wear face coverings — masks — to help stop the spread of COVID-19 is one of those deplorable hillbilly penchants.

A face covering is far cheaper than a doctor's visit, so it's not our state's low-socioeconomic bracket that drives our defiance about this.

And even if one can't afford a mask, it's not as though they're hard to make: Three or four layers of old T-shirt material (or anything washable) and some elastic or even a couple of long newspaper-bundling rubber bands will do.

Heaven knows, too, that refusingto wear a mask shouldn't be some silly, stubborn thing like "I'll not be told by the government what to do." Though, unfortunately, that may be what too many of us tell ourselves as a justification for being — pick one: afraid of being made fun of, forgetful, even just lazy.

The government tells us to we have to take a driver's test and and carry a drivers license, too, and most of us understand that it makes roads a bit safer and life a bit more convenient when we buy spirits or go to vote. That drivers license doesn't weigh down our wallet much, either.

Yet researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that while face mask use increased globally and in the United States between April 26 and June 13, face mask compliance in Tennessee declined.

With more than 600 COVID-19 deaths in Tennessee in three months and more than 36,000 of us sickened by the virus, only 10% to 20% percent of us said in June that we always wore a face mask when going out. And that percentage was down from the 20% or 30% of us who said we wore them in April.

That's not smart. That's just hillbilly stupid.

Make no mistake: This writer is a native Tennessee hillbilly and nearly lifelong resident — and quite proud of it. But not proud at all of our ignorant mask rejection.

Even Georgia crackers know better than we do, it seems. (Yes, the crackers nickname is hillbilly tongue-in-cheek, and unlike President Trump, we do kid.) Between 30% and 40% of Georgians said they always wear face masks — an increase from April. Indiana and Arizona were the only other states with the same low level of face mask use as Tennessee.

Our recklessness shows. Chattanooga has gained national attention for being the No. 2 locale in the nation for growth in its coronavirus death rate, and last week Hamilton County reported more than 2,200 cases and at least 29 deaths, including several teens and children. The entire state is 8th in the nation on Johns Hopkins new cases tally. Georgia, our neighbor three miles south, is No. 5.

COVID-19 is a serious pandemic and we are being foolish for not understanding this fact and taking it seriously.

Early last week, Tennessee health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said half of Tennessee's COVID-19 cases are now coming from unknown sources, meaning that community spread is occurring as businesses and public spaces reopen. Earlier in the pandemic most people were infected by someone they knew, primarily household contacts or coworkers. But now, 50% of cases in the state cannot be traced.

"As people are moving about in the community, they come into contact with people that are sick that they're unaware of," she said.

Piercey and other experts say mask wearing is key to slowing COVID-19 infections because respiratory droplets harbor infectious virus particles the eye can't see, and the virus can be spread by people who show no symptoms and don't even know they are infected.

"We really want to encourage personal responsibility and let everybody make the decision for themselves, but want to remind everybody that wearing a mask is just as — if not more — effective than hand washing," she said.

Becky Barnes, Hamilton County health administrator, added: "Face coverings are probably as effective as a shutdown."

Which brings up an interesting point.

In lifting our stay-at-home status and reopening Tennessee in early May, Gov. Bill Lee opted not to mandate safety measures for employers. Instead he called on them to take the "Tennessee pledge" to voluntarily follow unenforced state safety recommendations which include social distancing and wearing face coverings.

We see where that has gotten us. While some states are contemplating new shutdowns (talk about government telling us what to do), we still have it in our power to stay safe and have our freedom. All it takes is some smarts, some planning and a willingness to wear a mask.

We have clearly been foolish for not using the only real prevention tactics available against a virus that isn't just sickening and killing us, but also has the potential to further hurt our economy.

It seems to us that using a little hillbilly ingenuity to fashion just the right mask for our very independent personalities is a very Volunteer thing to do.

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