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Photo by Joe Rondone of The Commercial Appeal / Third-grade students wear their masks as the 2020-21 school year begins at Forest Hill Elementary School in Germantown, Tennessee.

Oh happy day! Those of us fully vaccinated can unmask. The trouble is, two-thirds of Chattanooga-area folks are not fully vaccinated, and apparently many of them won't ever be. What's more, many of some-odd 250,000 unvaccinated Hamilton Countians haven't been wearing masks anyway.

If you have mask whiplash, you're not alone.

Yes, it is wonderful that we've finally reached this place where health experts are telling us we can edge back into normal life if we've been careful and taken adequate precautions and, most of all, gotten a shot or shots that protect us and those around us.

"In a major step toward returning to prepandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and inside in most situations," read the story on this paper's front page Friday.

The new "guidance" still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes and hospitals.

But there is this big "but." The problem, as we see it, is that in our region, lifting the mask caution just lessens what little remaining vaccine resolve may have been building. Tennessee and much of the Southeast has been vaccine and mask resistant throughout the pandemic that sickened nearly 33 million Americans and killed 585,000 of us, including 496 right here in Hamilton County.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee never did issue a mask mandate for Tennessee, and in fact often was caught not wearing one himself — especially in photo opportunities with former president Donald Trump who mocked people wearing masks. What's more, at the end of April, Lee declared Tennessee no longer in a public health crisis and signed an executive order removing the authority of most county mayors to require face coverings.

(READ MORE: Fully vaccinated Chattanoogans can enter city buildings without masks, Mayor Tim Kelly says)

Is it any wonder that Tennessee still is No. 4 in the nation for per-capita COVID-19 cases and our test positivity rate is still 12.5% when the "safe" positivity rate is supposed to be under 5%?

Fortunately Hamilton County's Board of Education had the good sense Thursday night to vote 5-3 to continue requiring masks for students and teachers through the end of the school year — nine school days from now.

The fact that the Tennessee General Assembly last week passed a bill barring state and local government agencies, including schools, from requiring COVID-19 vaccines and passports (as the vaccination cards are sometimes dubbed) just makes it worse. Gov. Lee is, of course, expected to sign the bill into law.

State officials have consistently said they have no intention of mandating COVID-19 vaccines, and the Tennessee Department of Health recommends that private employers do not require them as long as the vaccines are operating under the federal Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization rather than full FDA approval.

But that eventual approval — which is virtually certain — is precisely why the Republican sponsors of the Tennessee bill said they were motivated to bring the measure forward. They said their "constituents" feared the possibility of future COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

How dare the government tell us we should be safe.

Tennessee's new law would mean that even once the COVID-19 vaccines achieve full FDA approval, public schools and other government agencies can't require them as they do many other widely used vaccines that prevent a range of infectious diseases, such as polio and measles, mumps and rubella.

Don't you find it odd that Tennessee's leaders want to protect us from sure-to-be-approved vaccines and masks but not from a proven killer virus?

We offer semi-kudos to Hamilton County Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who was the only member of the Hamilton County legislative delegation who did not vote for this bill. The trouble is, he didn't vote against it either. He abstained, saying he believes people should be able to choose whether they want to take a COVID-19 vaccine but he "didn't think the bill was a good bill."

"Not to say it wasn't a good idea, but the bill was flawed," Gardenhire said. "I try to vote on what the bill says, not the concept of the bill, and I was convinced that there would be some very unintended consequences of that bill."

Rep Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a former nurse, said she supported the bill based on feedback she received from constituents and because "it's a COVID vaccine-only bill."

Aren't you tired of lawmakers playing the "constituents" card and blaming their lame votes on us?

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said he meant to vote no on the measure but was distracted and made a mistake. "I erred on that vote ... It was not consistent with where I stand on that bill," Hakeem said. "I allowed myself to be doing more than one thing at once."

Thank you for acknowledging that, sir.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, blamed his "yes" vote on the pending FDA approval, but said this: "While the vaccine is incredibly safe and effective, it still has not gone through the normal vaccine channels ... I think that as the vaccine permeates through society, people will get very comfortable with it, and you won't see the kind of opposition that you see today. I work in health care. I encourage people to be vaccinated. I've been vaccinated."

Still, he'll make it easier for people not to be vaccinated — with or without the FDA's eventual approval.

Talk about confusing whiplash.

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