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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nursing supervisor Nadine Stone fills syringes with vaccine at First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, on March 30.

We cannot be lulled by our successful COVID-19 vaccines or by the fact that our coronavirus case numbers are down.

Cases are still happening here, in both our city and our region, as are hospitalizations and deaths. Hamilton County just a week ago surpassed a grim milestone of 500 deaths.

The good news is that even unvaccinated residents of our region are experiencing reduced COVID-19 transmission, thanks primarily to the vaccination of others.

Yet those unvaccinated people among us remain both at higher risk for illness and hospitalization, and they are being infected at higher rates than the full population of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia. That said, they now are the primary drivers of the region's ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, contributing to the continued spread of the coronavirus, according to a Times Free Press analysis of county-level COVID-19 case and vaccination data from the region.

"Clearly, the vast majority of people who are finding their way into the hospital today with COVID infection are people who are unvaccinated," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "The whole purpose of the vaccine is to keep us out of the hospital, and you can imagine that the number of people in the hospital would really plummet even further with COVID if the rest of the population were vaccinated."

Tennessee, however, still remains No. 5 in the country for COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — 12,476 — and with a test positivity rate of 12.2% (5% or lower is the goal). Georgia, with a third again as many people as Tennessee, is No. 24 with 10,604 cases per capita and a test positivity rate of 13.4%.

And it's little wonder: The red states of Tennessee and Georgia remain among the least vaccinated states in the country, with 39.5% and 40.5% of their populations, respectively, at least partially vaccinated, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those rates are well below the national average of 51%, and even further below the rates in the most vaccinated states — Vermont, Hawaii and Massachusetts, which have managed to give at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 71%, 67% and 67% of their populations, respectively.

The Volunteer and Peach states' numbers also put our region far off track for meeting President Biden's goal of getting at least one COVID-19 shot into the arms of 70% of adults by July 4.

Meanwhile new and more dangerous, more contagious variants of the virus are showing up worldwide.

There are plenty of reasons eligible people may not be vaccinated, including, in some areas, lingering issues of short supply, limited access to vaccination sites and confusing procedures for booking appointments. Some people are hesitant or unwilling to get a shot, especially, according to Kaiser Health Network research and polling, white evangelicals. A few houses of worship in the region sued their local governments over virus-related restrictions on gathering.

But one excuse that should never be a reason for spurning the vaccine is political partisanship, yet that seems very much in play — especially in the South.

The New York Times recently analyzed vaccine records and voter records in every county in the United States and found that both willingness to receive a coronavirus vaccine and actual vaccination rates were lower, on average, in counties where a majority of residents voted to re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in 2020.

Both Tennessee and Georgia governors followed the Trump administration's model of resisting masks. Neither state instituted a statewide mask mandate and both governors at least initially fought individual county and city mask mandates.

This virus and any future mutations of it don't care with which political party you identify. Nor do viruses care which religion you claim. They do, however, respond to vaccinations. They respond by failing largely to make you sick. They respond by dying themselves.

Help COVID-19 go away — really go away. Get a vaccine today.

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