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In Tennessee, unvaccinated residents are more vulnerable than ever as new variants arrive

Tennessee State University

Many Tennesseans are more vulnerable than ever as the omicron variant arrives. But even with 50% of the state still unvaccinated, other public health protections are unlikely to be revived to slow the spread of COVID.

Tennessee’s lowest COVID vaccination rates remain in rural areas. In some counties — including Macon, Smith and Cannon — less than a third of residents are fully immunized.

“I am concerned about zip codes that don’t have high immunization rates,” says Dr. Wendelyn Inman, a former state epidemiologist who is now a professor at Tennessee State University. “We may not have the shutdowns to protect the few that may die.”

While it’s unclear whether illness from the omicron variant is more severe, Inman says the current vaccines seem to still be effective and preventing serious illness and death. As of Friday, no deaths had been reported from the variant.

But mitigation measures are non-existent in much of Tennessee. A state of emergency was allowed to expire, and the legislature is focused on resisting federal pandemic restrictions and mandates, not enforcing them.

State officials have moved so far away from pandemic mitigation measures, they’re unlikely to reinstate any — even if a new variant causes another COVID surge. Inman says the unvaccinated have never been so unprotected, and public health officials need to make sure leaders understand that the risk for the unvaccinated are as high as ever.

“That begins with our legislators and the people who serve the people. We need to let them know,” she says. “If we can educate them, then we’re no longer dropping the ball. They are.”

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