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Our new COVID-19 cases are surging so fast and furious this summer that they are "near identical" to those last summer and younger, unvaccinated people — including children who aren't yet eligible for the shots — are getting sicker than what we saw last year.

Yet, our school districts are largely returning to in-person learning in less than two weeks and school officials are not requiring masks, despite an entreaty to do so from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Add to that a major change for all Tennessee school districts this year: The state Board of Education has decided that no districts will be allowed to continue online, at-home learning, despite many more families now having increased access to technology.

Yes, it's whiplash time. Worsening COVID, especially for younger people, but fewer protections, even after a year's technical preparation and a year's experience perfecting a form of hybrid online and in-school study.

(READ MORE: A guide for families as children head back to classrooms amid worrying COVID-19 surge)

USA Today on Monday published an article that perfectly put this kind of head-in-the-sand, freedom vs. COVID protection, thinking in its place: "The COVID culture war: At what point should personal freedom yield to the common good?"

We insist that point is now. Right now.

How can it be that after more than 18 months of this pandemic, with 1 of every 545 Americans killed by COVID-19, a substantial chunk of the population can continue to get away with asserting some of form of "you can't make me?"

Someone must. Because those who take no precautions are violating everyone else's rights — threatening the freedom the live of everyone they potentially expose.

In recent days, more than 50 health care and medical groups agree, calling for employers of health and long-term care workers to mandate COVID-19 vaccines. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly has ordered masks worn inside City Hall and other city government buildings — whether vaccinated or not — and is offering workers cash incentives to be fully vaccinated.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mandates masks in city buildings, gives vaccine incentive; county leaves both to personal choice)

Finally one of Tennessee's lawmakers, Republican Rep. David Byrd of Middle Tennessee who once spurned masks, has come around — but not before the 63-year-old former teacher and principal spent eight months in the hospital with COVID-19 — 55 days of that time on a ventilator.

Before his ordeal, Byrd joined other GOPers in voting for a resolution saying news media had "sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas." And during his "brutal and lonely" recovery while he missed the entire legislative session from January to May, his fellow Tennessee Republicans followed their own "political agendas" and restricted the ability of government and in some cases businesses, to enact public health precautions.

Now Byrd, back home after nearly dying and receiving a transplant to replace his COVID-ravaged liver, has a message: "COVID is real and it is very dangerous. It is a disease that wants to kill us. Please take it seriously. Please consider getting vaccinated. This is an issue that should not divide us."

Think of Byrd and Tennessee as a microcosm of the country where most mask and vaccine resistance is not about public health. It is about politics. Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor of government, told USA Today it's the "new front in the culture wars. ... Even as the pandemic highlights our mutual dependence, it is striking how little solidarity and shared sacrifice it has called forth. The pandemic caught us unprepared — logistically and medically, but also morally. ... (It) arrived at just the wrong moment — amid toxic politics, incompetent leadership and fraying social bonds."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools officials stand their ground on optional masks as COVID-19 situation worsens)

Hamilton County last week was averaging 113 new cases a day. A year ago, that number was 107 new cases a day. The trend also holds true across the country, with the COVID's delta variant now killing more than 2,000 Americans each week and new infections topping 60,000 a day for the first time in more than three months.

But this time — this year — there is an ominous difference. Nearly all of the mitigation — state or local mandated face coverings, limited occupancy for indoor settings, expanded unemployment benefits — that were in place in 2020 are gone.

Add to that, pandemic fatigue. Of course we all want to get back to normal. So, yes, many people are congregating more freely. Events like music festivals, indoor dining and sporting events are roaring back.

Just Monday, the Chattanooga Lookouts lifted all capacity restrictions at the 6,300-seat AT&T Field for the remaining six home games of the season.

That announcement came just one day after we learned Hamilton County was averaging a positivity rate of nearly 21% on new COVID-19 tests. A 5% or less rating is deemed safe, and on July 1, we were there with a 4% rating. What a difference a month of edging back to normal and the delta variant has made.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools not requiring masks as COVID-19 data 'all going in the wrong direction')

Until the area can get to 70% vaccinated, Chattanooga's Office of Community Health Director Mary Lambert says masking, social distancing and washing hands will continue to be important.

But it's not enough. Listen to Rep. Byrd and and Sandel. We also must hear the wise words of researcher Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Kamil recently told the Times Free Press that we mustn't throw away our progress when we're so close to besting the pandemic.

"It's like a fire, dying, and we're throwing tinder and kindling on it," he said. "It's just as the pandemic is starting to smolder, we're pouring gasoline on it. It doesn't make sense to have people indoors, crowding, at large events. You're tempting fate."

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