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AP file photo by Robert F. Bukaty / A pharmacy technician in Maine loads a syringe with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.

Please, please, please Hamilton County folks! Please get your free, safe and readily available COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as possible.

We've fallen far behind in the vaccination regimen, and our county's future, our health and perhaps even our lives depend on it.

The county's seven-day average for new people receiving a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccination peaked on March 16 with 2,262 new people lining up for a shot each day. If the county had maintained that rate, 53% of us would have received at least one dose by Thursday of last week.

But that March peak plummeted, and for no good reason. Now, only 38.6% of county residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Worse, fewer than 32% of us in Hamilton County are fully vaccinated.

As a region, the mid-South, including Tennessee, is emerging as one of the least vaccinated, and perhaps the most vaccine hesitant, areas of the country.

Tennessee, with a mere 26.7% of us vaccinated, remains among the sixth least vaccinated of all states in tallies of residents fully inoculated, according to the Johns Hopkins vaccine tracker. (Georgia is seventh least vaccinated and Alabama is second least — topped in that dishonorable count only by Mississippi.)

It's no secret that the world is in a race against COVID's ability to mutate into any number of more contagious and more deadly strains. Experts estimate that at least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order for us to outrace the virus and return to "normalcy" through "herd immunity."

So, here in the richest nation in the country and in a quite prosperous state, why are we so behind?

Is it because we are misinformed? Is is because we are in denial? Is it because we are stupid?

It's not because we don't have transportation. Hamilton County Health Department offers to schedule anyone a free ride to a vaccine site and back home if you call 423-209-8383.

Is it because we think God will protect us from COVID-19? Let's be realistic: God expects us to take responsibility. If that were not true, why do we think the 10 Commandments were cast in stone?

Is is because we think COVID-19 is no worse than the flu? That's not true: In 2016, of all the 3,551 Hamilton County residents who died, only 2% them — about 71 — died of flu or pneumonia. Over the past year, however, 495 of us died of COVID-19 — even while flu was almost nonexistent here thanks to masking and social distancing. But not even that masking and social distancing, mind you, could save 495 of our lost loved ones to the highly contagious and dangerous COVID-19.

Yet we risk more. Yet, the number of new people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in Hamilton County each day is now a third of what it was even six weeks ago. Yet our region grapples with truly inexcusable vaccine hesitancy and the plummeting rates of residents getting shots.

On the final Saturday in April, cars sporadically pulled up to a drive-thru vaccination event in The Howard School parking lot where CHI Memorial's medical staff was prepared to administer 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to anyone 18 and older, including walk-ups, free of charge. A mere 53 people were vaccinated that day.

Indeed, our vaccination rates have dropped so dramatically that the health department is only operating one vaccination site now — at the Tennessee Riverpark — because of low demand.

Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside, says it isn't just our health that stands to suffer if we become — again — a hot spot for the virus and its mutating strains in the months and years to come. Those areas with low rates of vaccinations and immunity will face greater economic burdens will require taxpayer money that could otherwise go to other needs, Carpiano said.

A new "Get Vaccinated Chattanooga" campaign, funded by a $401,664 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, as well as an additional $20,000 from the Community Foundation and $10,000 from the Benwood Foundation, focuses on populations that not only are more susceptible to COVID-19, but also face additional barriers to accessing health care. For example, mistrusting Black residents make up 19% of Hamilton County's population but account for 27% of the county's COVID-19 deaths, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department. Latinos, too, with their language barrier, have been hard to reach and hard hit.

But that's not all that's going on here. Our county and state are historically both misinformed and stubborn about immunizations.

According to the Hamilton County's 2019 Community Health Profile, the immunization status of 24-month-old children in Hamilton County and Tennessee during 2017 trailed goals and standards, as well. The state's "objective" was to see 90% of our children vaccinated against normal communicable diseases as simple as mumps and measles. Yet in both Hamilton County and the state, the number of childhood immunizations that year reached only 74%.

If we won't protect our children, it's no wonder we won't protect ourselves. And since it's not lack of access or money or even faith, it's must be something far more insidious — perhaps just stubborn ignorance.

We are better than this.

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