It would seem that Tennessee's state lawmakers and governor are doing all they possibly can to discourage COVID-19 vaccination. And it seems to be a successful effort — given that our vaccination rate remains at the bottom of the nation's numbers.
The latest effort — instructing health officials across the state to make sure they don't aim coronavirus vaccination information at teens under 18 — could not be more backward.
Almost two weeks ago, we wrote that it seems the state's Gov. Bill Lee — the guy who refused to issue a statewide mask mandate and who for a time fought cities and counties that did — does listen to some people: the outer banks of the many right wing extremists of his Republican party.
In early July, facing threats by some fellow Republicans in the legislature who wanted to abolish or "reconstitute" the Tennessee Department of Health after it conducted outreach to minors with posters — yes, posters — extolling the benefits of vaccination, the governor said his administration will work through parents going forward.
OK, that might have seemed like he was trying to make a reasonable compromise, but now we learn that emails from Dr. Tim Jones, the health department's chief medical officer, to county departments says health officials should not advertise vaccine events to anyone besides the "general population" and "should not have any pop-up events 'for adolescents'."
What started this farce? A Facebook post that pictured a teen with a Band-Aid on her shoulder that said anyone 12 and up was eligible to get vaccinated. "Eligible."
"The Department of Health is targeting our youth," came the cry from Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a hearing last month. "When you have advertisements like this, with a young girl with a patch on her arm all smiling, we know how impressionable our young people are."
Apparently Cepicky himself is overly impressionable.
Anyone 16 and up is eligible to drive, too. Should we stop driver's ed? Should we insist that schools and police and health departments not show any posters or programs that message to teens that they should wear their seat belts and drive safely and practice abstinence from sex and alcohol and other dangerous behavior like not being vaccinated from a killer virus?
But as we noted after the squawking in a joint House and Senate Government Operations Committee hearing where several Republican lawmakers railed at state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercy over the flyers and simultaneously threatened to do away with the state health department, Gov. Lee ducked and fell in line with them.
Now we're seeing emails to county health departments to curtail outreach to teens who aren't too young to commit to the armed forces or to colleges or to marriage, but apparently are too young to make common sense decisions about their own health.
The state health department confirmed to The Associated Press that it deleted the social media posts about teen vaccinations and said the posts weren't intended to target juveniles, but were "perceived by some to give the wrong impression."
"The department has evaluated events, social media posts and other means to ensure it is explicitly clear that it is supporting parents in this process and there is no room for interpretation, otherwise," the agency said in a statement.
What are these folks perceiving? More dreaded government indoctrination like that they claim our young people get in school when the causes of the Civil War and other American history is discussed? Who's trying to indoctrinate whom here? How about we just eliminate science from our children's lessons, too?
This spring, the GOP-controlled legislature passed several bills that, at best, sent mixed messages on vaccinations, including one prohibiting schools and universities from requiring COVID shots. No such mandates exist, but legislators argued for a preemptive law to ensure personal liberty would trump public health, even during a pandemic.
Another new law requires any information shared with students or parents about state vaccination requirements for communicable diseases must now also include information about religious exemptions.
Tennessee's full vaccination rate remains low, 38%, and despite the fact that vaccines for teens 16 and up have been available since April 5 and for those ages 12-15 since May 14, only about 2% of Volunteer State teens are vaccinated, according to state data.
Did we mention that schools start on Aug. 12 in Hamilton County, less than a month from now?
Shame on these Republicans. And shame on Gov. Lee for knuckling under to their stubborn ignorance — the same ignorance that is reversing what had been a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases until the more contagious and dangerous delta variant of the virus evolved.
This ignorance is killing Tennesseans, and it looks like it now will kill more.