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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Abbe Hildebrandt, left, administers a dose of vaccine to Chattanooga resident Holli Harris as nurse Sandra Young, back right, administers a dose to her husband Allen Harris at the Tennessee Riverpark in September.

With all of the headlines about Tennessee lawmakers squashing COVID-19 prevention, it would be easy to be lulled into thinking our leaders are making these decisions because the threat of COVID-19 is a thing of the past.

We saw another headline indicating lack of concern on Thursday: "UTC drops mask mandate despite exemption from new Tennessee law reining in COVID-19 restrictions." Could UTC scream any louder that they want us all to put our heads in the sand and stop worrying?

But there is plenty to worry about.

Despite all the seeming attitude otherwise, our numbers are going up again — not down — after a brief slowdown following the delta surge in late summer.

On Nov. 17, looking at the past 14-day change, Tennessee cases were up 14%, and deaths were up 2%, according to The New York Times Coronavirus Tracker which compiles state health department numbers.

In Hamilton County, on the same day and looking at the past 14-day change, cases were up 17% and deaths — we were at 667 on Thursday — are up a whopping 133%, according to The Times.

Now, yes, if you look each day at the two pages of state-by-state rankings that the Chattanooga Times Free Press publishes, you may be scratching your head and asking how this can be. Hasn't Tennessee fallen in the rankings on that chart? The short answer is yes. But it's complicated.

For several weeks in the fall, Tennessee was at the top of that chart as the No. 1 state for per-capita cases of COVID — clearly making the argument for us to be the worst in the country — despite our governor's and lawmakers' shameful shenanigans to roadblock any and every sensible prevention requirement for this dangerous and increasingly preventable virus.

Instead of encouraging the state's masses to mask up and get vaccinated, Gov. Bill Lee doubled down to pen an executive order requiring school systems to allow parents to opt-out their children from face masks. And the General Assembly called itself into special session to make a law that mandates against school and employer mask or vaccine mandates unless the governor issues a state of emergency and we have rampant illness.

All that anti-mask and anti-vaccine lathering on the part of our supermajority Republican politicians was a direct response not to concerns about our health but in defiance and contradiction to executive orders signed by Democratic President Joe Biden in September requiring federal contractors who receive federal funds (and eventually employers with more than 100 workers) to comply with mask requirements and a Jan. 4 deadline for COVID-19 vaccination.

Back to that complicated chart, however. In the past weeks, we've gradually slipped down the page. Now we're No. 4, behind No. 1 North Dakota, No. 2 Alaska and No. 3 Wyoming.

But, again, our numbers didn't go down. They still went up.

The key here is that the per capita case curves in North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming simply surged faster in those three states that collectively have less than a third the population of Tennessee.

Let's put it another way: On Oct. 20, the last day Tennessee sat in that No. 1 row, the chart showed the Volunteer State with 1,266,252 cases and a seven-day average per capita "new case curves" statewide number of 18,323. Almost one month later on Thursday, Nov. 18, the charts put Tennessee at No. 4 with 1,298,767 cases and a seven-day average per capita new case curve number of 18,793.

Our per-capita new case curve had jumped by 470. But the other three states' new case curves had jumped more.

Another obeservation to note is that all four of these states are in the nation's "least-vaccinated" basket.

But not to worry, Tennesseans and Chattanoogans: The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will stand by its move to not require face masks on campus, despite the state granting the university system a waiver giving school officials the ability to keep masking because UTC sometimes works with federal contractors.

And not to worry, either, about the Tennessee Valley Authority, which faces a Monday deadline for workers there to show proof of vaccination. The federal utility isn't immediately firing any workers, and officials there say they are still working with unvaccinated employees.

For the moment, Tennessee's shameful new law seeking to block most Tennessee schools from implementing mask mandates will continue to be put on hold as a federal lawsuit moves forward, a judge determined Monday.

But Hamilton County Schools already have bowed to the pressure. On Nov. 8 our local school district lifted its face mask requirement for students, staff and visitors.

Don't worry, folks. Be happy. Every little thing is going to be all right.

Our politicians say so, and they are just going to ignore anything indicating otherwise.

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