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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tullahoma residents Paisley Woodcock, 4, Donna Jones and Lee Martin look at the fish at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday.

Easter weekend is kicking off spring break in Tennessee and Georgia. The sun is shinning. Hotels are hopping with rooms filling up, and tourism venues in our city coming back to life. Meanwhile, health experts are pleading with us all to stay masked, stay distanced, avoid crowds and to continue that for at least two more weeks even after we get vaccinated.

The trouble is, the Southeast — as we've mentioned before — continues to be the desert on COVID-19 vaccination statistics maps. What's more, newer, more contagious variants of the virus, combined with relaxed safety measures and an uptick in travel, are creating a prime environment for a "fourth wave," U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned this week.

And this fourth surge seems to be concentrated among young people — the very ones driving spring break business, according to health experts. So we join in the cautionary pleas to go slow.

Despite gains in fighting COVID-19 and a dramatic drop in local COVID deaths, viral transmission in the area remains high. On April 1 we registered 73 new cases for the day, against a seven-day average of 53 new cases.

Chattanooga is not alone in the upward creep. New cases and hospitalizations are on the rise across the U.S., and the weekly averages for new COVID-19 cases in Georgia and Tennessee are about the same as early June and July, just before last summer's surge.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, only about 1 million of our roughly 7 million people — 14.1 percent — are now fully inoculated. In Georgia, it's 12.4%. Nationwide, it's 17%.

"The virus can't mutate if it can't replicate. It remains extremely important to continue safe practices — wear your mask, keep your distance, wash your hands and avoid crowds," Rae Bond, chairwoman of the local COVID-19 Joint Task Force, said Tuesday during a news briefing.

But, no. "The kickoff of the travel and tourism season in Chattanooga is brighter than it has been in more than a year," said the story on the front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday.

Barry White, CEO of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., is quoted: "We have seen activity pick up both during the week and also on weekends, and we've seen a slight uptick even compared to 2019 for weekday and weekend travel. Spring breaks are in full swing."

The story and quote are nestled beneath a headline that states: "Chattanooga hospitality industry sees signs of a thaw in pandemic trends."

That would be tourism trends, mind you. Not virus case trends.

To his credit, White added: "It's very optimistic, but the caution is we can't loosen up on the safety. I get it, we are all tired of that, but they are necessary. The last thing we want is another surge."

There are some signs that caution — both the need for it and the lack of it — is gaining attention in the region.

Hamilton County is one of two counties in the nation selected to participate in a new federal program to provide rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests. That's welcome news since testing has significantly declined here even as the virus mutations spread, leading experts to think there are considerably more cases than reported.

In mid-April, our county will join Pitt County in North Carolina to help as many as 160,000 residents participate in a new initiative from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The participants will receive enough kits to test themselves three times a week for one month. The goal is to determine if frequent, self-administered COVID-19 testing helps reduce community transmission of the virus.

A second interesting development comes on the Tennessee corporate front: Pilot Company announced Thursday it will offer a one-time, $75 incentive to its employees who choose to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The perk will will be available to all Pilot Company hourly workers, professional drivers and general managers in the United States and Canada.

Cheers to Pilot for understanding the value of vaccines and of incentives to help overcome vaccine hesitancy.

COVID-19 clearly isn't finished with us yet, though it already has claimed nearly 554,000 American lives and countless livelihoods.

Like Chattanooga's tourism chief, we get it. We're ready to get back to our lives, our extended family, our friends and our fun — but we've come too far in the fight against this ugly virus to let it get the upper hand again.

Please, folks! Stay smart, stay vigilant. Have a happy Easter and spring break, but do so safely.

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