Tennessee governor: Get vaccinated but masks not necessary in schools

Gov. Bill Lee talks about surging COVID-19 cases and the need for Tennesseans to get vaccinated during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, July 22, 2021. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Gov. Bill Lee is urging Tennesseans to get vaccinated as cases of COVID-19 surge, but doesn’t think schools should follow new recommendations from U.S. pediatricians for all students and staff to wear masks.

In a news conference Thursday, the Republican governor acknowledged the virus isn’t going away without interventions as he deviated from his previous messaging that “vaccines are a personal choice.”

“The No. 1 tool we have to manage COVID-19, including the delta variant, is the vaccine, and we encourage Tennesseans to pursue that,” said Lee, who got his shots in March with no public announcement.

It was the governor’s most direct message yet about the need for mass vaccination in a state with less than 39% of residents fully vaccinated, one of the nation’s lowest rates.

But Lee stuck with his longstanding position that mask mandates aren’t necessary as most Tennessee kids, including those under 12 who aren’t eligible for vaccinations, prepare to return to school next month. 

“That is a district decision in this state, but I suspect most districts will not require masks, and I support that,” Lee said.

He added that vaccines are available for “any adult that wants it” and that “the likelihood that children will get seriously ill is incredibly low.”

The governor also praised the state health department’s recent decision to halt any marketing of vaccines to adolescents that doesn’t go directly through parents. And he supported his health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, for firing the state’s immunization chief, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, in the political tug-of-war over vaccines and the pandemic.

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released school reopening guidance recommending essentially that everyone in schools wear face coverings, even if they’re vaccinated. Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended that unvaccinated students and staff and all students under 12 should wear masks. 

Only one Tennessee district, Shelby County Schools in Memphis, has mandated masks for all students and staff this year. Other school systems that have announced their policies are making face coverings optional, although Nashville officials are “strongly encouraging” their use. A petition launched by a group of Nashville parents is asking that more stringent masking protocols be reinstated.

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The relaxed mitigation policies are leaving students, parents, teachers, and staff to decide for themselves what layers of protection are needed as the highly contagious delta variant spreads.

DeAnna Osborne, a middle school teacher in Rutherford County, plans to keep wearing a mask, even though she’s been vaccinated and her district south of Nashville has made face coverings optional.

“A mask is a very small gesture I can make to communicate that I take the risk seriously and I respect scientific guidance,” Osborne said.

Eric Hagan hasn’t been vaccinated but the high school teacher says he doesn’t plan to wear a mask in his classes in Robertson County, north of Nashville, unless his district tells him to.

“The policy could quickly change,” Hagan said. “But I think most people have common sense. They’re washing their hands, covering their mouth when they cough. It’s really just up to each person’s comfort level.”

Children, including very young children, can develop COVID-19, but many have no symptoms. Those who get sick tend to experience milder symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and cough. But some children have severe complications, and those with underlying health conditions may be more likely to become severely ill.

In Tennessee, less than 14% of children ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated. For those ages 16-20, the rate rises to 24%.

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