Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Oscar Gaytan gives a COVID-19 vaccination to Emily Ramos in the drive through area of Clinica Medicos last month. Vaccination hesitancy is hindering our progress toward herd immunity, health officials say.

Scientists tell us that the longer COVID-19 continues to spread easily in the population, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate into more contagious and more deadly strains.

Scientists also tell us that about 70% of us need to be vaccinated to create "herd immunity" — when a large enough portion of the population is immune to an infectious disease like COVID and the illness grinds to a halt because there aren't enough susceptible people to infect.

And, no, scientists say herd immunity for a disease has never — repeat, never — been achieved without the help of a vaccine.

We have vaccines now, and they are available to all of us ages 16 and up in Tennessee and Georgia

The trouble is, too many of us are ignoring the opportunity to get vaccinated. Too many of us locally, too many in Tennessee and Georgia, and far too many in the Southeast.

In fact, on the map, the Southeast looks somewhat like a vaccination desert. That's not because we can't get the vaccine here, rather it's just because we're not holding out our arms.

Let's review: It will take 70% of us to be inoculated to attain herd immunity — that magic sweet space between immunizations and the virtual elimination of less killer illnesses like polio and measles.

But here in Tennessee, 13.6% of us — 921,102 people — have opted in as of Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 vaccine tracker. Even in Hamilton County, where the number is 15.7% fully vaccinated, that means we're nowhere near close enough to achieve our herd immunity goal.

"Uptake of the vaccines in Tennessee remains low across all racial groups, especially in rural areas. Many rural Tennessee county health departments are seeing only a fraction of their daily COVID-19 vaccination appointments filled," according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Health issued in mid-March.

Things haven't gotten much better since then. As of this week, there are only six locales with smaller percentages of vaccinated residents: Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and — dead last with 11.4% — Georgia.

The best vaccination rate is in New Mexico at 21.8%. The U.S. average is 14.8%

You would think Southerners are stubborn or dumb — or something.

No comment.

OK, yes, we'll comment: We'll start by eliminating other possibilities.

The shots are free, so we can't say we're too poor. It doesn't matter if you have insurance or not.

The shots are convenient — you don't even have to get out of your car. It's a drive-by inoculation. You don't have to find a parking space.

If you don't have a car, the Hamilton County Health Department is offering free — repeat, free — transportation to the Tennessee Riverpark and CARTA Bus Barn vaccination sites. Schedule an appointment in advance by calling 423-209-8383.

The vaccinations are safe and do not hurt. COVID-19 is scary and does hurt. In fact, this ugly novel coronavirus has killed almost 550,000 Americans, including 473 here in Hamilton County, 11,816 people in Tennessee and 18,926 in Georgia.

Tennessee's low COVID-19 vaccination rate — and the similarly low rates in Georgia and Alabama — threatens more than just those who choose not to get vaccinated. It threatens us all.

It means we're not getting to that space of herd immunity, and that means the virus will keep replicating and mutating and getting worse. Already the more infectious U.K. variant is believed to be the dominant strain in our region. It's 50% more transmissible than previously common COVID strains and is believed to be more deadly.

We're in race against the virus and its ability to get the best of us. And we're not really running. We're more or less hopping along on just one foot.

This is why the health care and scientific communities are pushing for more education and efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy to get more shots into arms.

Chattanooga infectious disease specialist Dr. Jay Sizemore told the Erlanger Health System board of trustees last week: "My grave concern is that if people don't appreciate the continued toll that this pandemic is taking on our country, and they don't recognize the benefits of vaccination, our ability to get to that state of so-called 'herd immunity' is uncertain."

Against this backdrop, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Monday extended the countywide mask mandate through April 28. We applaud his action. We would like to applaud a surge of vaccine takers.

Immunity can be achieved through vaccination or previous infection, a protection that lasts an estimated eight months or possibly longer. Vaccination, however, is always preferred. Vaccines prevent more death, illness and opportunity for the disease to spread.

So come on Tennessee and Georgia: Let's drop our resistance — stubbornness — to this public health benefit. We all have a better chance of beating COVID-19 with a vaccination than without one.

Mask up and stick out your arms. There's no excuse not to.