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Staff file photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County's McConnell Elementary School principal Ruth Pohlman and maskless Gov. Bill Lee walk down the hall at McConnell Elementary School on Aug. 11 in Hixson so Lee could present the school with the Governor's Civic Seal, an award given to schools and districts that prioritize teaching the nations history and core values.

Tennesseans are always looking to be No. 1 at something: winning football, best tourist destination, most patriotic, most religious — pick one.

What we're sure you wouldn't pick is No. 1 for new cases of COVID-19. But that's where we've been in recent days and could well be again.

Just ahead of the Labor Day weekend and while tens of thousands of Tennesseans frolicked unmasked to holiday picnics and festivals, we edged out all other states.

Move over, Alabama. Get a move on, Florida. Look out, North Dakota. Watch out, Kentucky. We're blowing your doors off.

Tennessee edged them all out and hit the No. 1 spot for several days. For the moment, at least. Even at No. 2, or No. 3, or 4 and 5 as we have been for months now, landing on the "worst" list in the country for escalating, per-capita novel coronavirus cases is no honor. We've been leading all other U.S. states and territories for quite some time, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Going into this week, CDC data showed Tennessee was reporting nearly 790 infections per 100,000 residents over the prior 7 days. The next highest state was South Carolina at 717.

So why would we keep smiling and glad-handing with no masks and considerably fewer than half of us fully vaccinated? We're merely following the example of our governor, Bill Lee, who himself has been glad-handing around to bring a civics learning award to a Hamilton County school and to campaign for fellow Republicans, even locally, with no mask and plenty of big smiles. Lee's been vaccinated, but he didn't use the occasion to help other Tennesseans see that it was safe to get a shot. He kept his vaccination a secret until reporters put him on the spot about it. Dolly Parton got a public vaccine, but not Lee.

Since then, he's been too busy making sure parents could opt their children out of school mask mandates and schools couldn't shift to remote learning as cases mounted. Never mind the last year's experience and investments in virtual learning. Is it optimal? No, but it's better than the no learning that goes along with the "snow days" that Lee ordered schools take if forced to close. Lee also busied himself with making sure the state pays cattlemen an incentive to vaccinate their cows against disease, but steadfastly continues to say Tennessee's people needed no incentives to edge our vaccination rate above a paltry 43%.

So no wonder that as of Friday, Hamilton County hospitals were setting daily records of coronavirus patients in intensive care and we saw 10 new deaths. As of Friday, Hamilton County hospitals set a record of coronavirus patients in intensive care, with 84. There were 10 new deaths, bringing the county's total to 565.

And it's not like we — and Lee — didn't know it was coming. His own health commissioner made it clear.

"Our hospitals are in dire straits," Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a Thursday news conference.

Tennessee's ICU cases are 20% higher than the winter surge, and ventilator use is 40% higher compared to that time, Piercey said.

The state also set new records in hospitalization counts and infections among school-age children. Both numbers reached the highest level ever since the pandemic began last year. Children tally 40% of the new cases, and in total, more than 154,000 children between ages 5 and 18 have been infected since the start of the pandemic. At least 19 school districts have closed since early August.

Last week, Tennessee was averaging 7,700 confirmed cases and 38 deaths per day — the highest level since the delta variant ignited a wave of infections in the state, data shows. The weekly positivity rate topped 19%. The CDC predicts the death rate could approximately double within the next month.

At that same news conference, Lee defended his actions on the school mask opt-outs, saying parents are the best deciders. But here's the thing: Parents who want their youngsters to mask up can't decide anymore. Their kids are right in those classrooms with the unmasked ones. So, Gov. Lee, get out of the way and let careful parents decide, too.

The Tennessean wrote that immediately after the Thursday news conference, a group of doctors followed Lee as he left, attempting to deliver to him an open letter from almost 5,000 medical professionals calling for a universal mask mandate without opt-outs. They chased after Lee and shouted questions at him.

"How do you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID?" one of them asked.

Lee walked away without addressing them, the Tennessean reported.

Mary Barnes, who was one of the doctors there, said the documents contained more than 150 pages of signatures from physicians. She was disturbed by Lee's failure to heed health professionals' advice and failure to lead.

"This is just reckless," Barnes said. "It's unethical, and it's preventable. It shouldn't be happening."

She is absolutely right. Gov. Bill Lee is failing every single one of us right now.

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