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Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / After being vaccinated in June, people received a "I'm vaccinated" pin during a block party at the BlueCross Healthy Place at Highland Park.

Hamilton County's COVID-19 deaths hit 600 this week. Sadly, this is not surprising in the state that has finally found a way to be No. 1 in something — the highest, fastest rate of transmission of this dangerously contagious virus.

Certainly, it's a sign of growing concern when Walmart voluntarily closes a store because of so much illness among its staff or shoppers. Eleven months ago it was a Walmart store in Kimball, Tennessee. On Tuesday it was the Hixson superstore on Highway 153. The Hixson store will reopen Thursday morning after being sanitized and restocked, according to Walmart communications director Brian Little.

A second big milestone for COVID-19 is that it has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic did — about 675,000.

"The U.S. population a century ago was just one-third of what it is today, meaning the flu cut a much bigger, more lethal swath through the country. But the COVID-19 crisis is by any measure a colossal tragedy in its own right, especially given the incredible advances in scientific knowledge since then and the failure to take maximum advantage of the vaccines available this time," according to The Associated Press.

While the Spanish flu raged, there were no vaccines to mandate. But there were masks and mask mandates. And people paid attention.

Unlike far too many Americans today.

"Big pockets of American society — and, worse, their leaders — have thrown this away," medical historian Dr. Howard Markel of the University of Michigan told the AP of the opportunity to vaccinate everyone eligible by now.

Here in No. 1-for-COVID Tennessee, too many of our leaders have been especially guilty of this leadership omission. (By the way, we're No. 44 for fully vaccinated residents. In the Volunteer State, only 44.1% of us have put our arms out for life-saving shots. Hamilton County is only a little better, with 47.8% of us opting to be fully vaccinated. In nearby Sequatchie County? Only 26%.)

We will spare you our usual rant against our governor for his continuing lack of leadership.

But it's worth mentioning that Tennessee's U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is far more interested in getting a new federal holiday — 9/11 Day — than she is in promoting COVID safety.

In July, in fact, she did some grandstanding on the Senate floor to call out President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and "left-wing leaders on their COVID hysteria."

She pontificated: "[W]hat is happening today is not necessarily about masks. This is about continuing to perpetrate these lockdowns. We've had a series of lockdowns [and the left was] pulling back on freedom, giving power to the government, and lessening the ability for individual choices."

Marsha: Please ask Walmart who locked down the Hixson store which will result in no profit over three days. It wasn't Biden or Pelosi or "left-wing" leaders with "COVID hysteria."

It was the store managers themselves — full of reasonable concern for their employees and customers. And when the store reopens, according to spokesman Little, "we will follow CDC guidance, which includes fully vaccinated people wearing masks in public indoor settings in counties with substantial or high transmission."

That would be here in Hamilton County and all of Tennessee, where the dangerous delta variant is raging and masking is becoming increasingly important as our hospitals and physicians begin to see more breakthrough COVID cases among people who have been fully vaccinated.

Because we're still No. 1.

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