Opinion | Dolly Parton Tried to Get Tennessee Vaccinated. But It’s Not Enough.

July 16, 2021, 7:40 p.m. ET

NASHVILLE — When Dolly Parton obtained her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at Vanderbilt University, the place her personal million-dollar donation helped to fund the analysis, she sang an up to date model of her iconic tune “Jolene.” The tongue-in-cheek lyrics had been meant to encourage folks to get vaccinated:

Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate
Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine
’Cause when you’re lifeless, then that’s a bit too late

She gave it attempt, a heroic attempt, however by some means the bonehead politicians operating this state managed to overcome even the nice will generated by its favourite daughter.

Remember how hopeful we had been, earlier this yr, when the brand new Covid-19 vaccines arrived so astonishingly shortly, and had been so astonishingly efficient and secure? As a nation — politically, institutionally, too typically personally — we’d botched nearly every part about this pandemic, and we didn’t deserve a miracle. The miracle arrived anyway.

We had been giddy concerning the prospect of these vaccines. We couldn’t cease speaking about how blissful we might be to sit in a movie show once more, to hear dwell music once more, to go to church and sing out loud once more, to sit and discuss round a desk once more, late into the night time, with no care for the way lengthy we had been respiratory the identical air. We would attain for brand new infants and lean down to scent their downy heads. We would weep with the enjoyment of being pores and skin to pores and skin with new life. New life, after such a protracted, darkish yr!

The anticipation of happiness appeared actually ecumenical. Liberals, conservatives, politically detached folks — everybody I knew was watching for his or her vaccine precedence quantity to come up. We had been signing up for leftover doses that is likely to be accessible on the finish of the day. We had been heading out of city to get vaccinated in rural counties the place well being officers had been transferring extra shortly by means of the vaccine precedence rankings. The empty vaccine strains ought to have advised us one thing was occurring in these counties, one thing apart from the truth that fewer folks lived there.

Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, understood what was occurring. Mr. Lee is vaccinated, however he refused to be photographed getting the shot — the Covid shot, that’s: He did submit a photograph of himself getting a flu shot final November. “Getting a flu shot is more important than ever this year,” his Twitter submit learn. “I got mine to help protect my granddaughters as we prepare to celebrate their first birthday.” Not a phrase about defending kids from the deadliest pandemic in 100 years.

None of this was stunning. Mr. Lee just isn’t a frontrunner who truly leads a lot as a politician who reads the room. From the start, white folks in rural Tennessee have been so skeptical of this vaccine that final month state officers returned an allotment of three million doses to the federal stockpile. “We’re sort of grinding to a halt,” the state’s well being commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, advised News Channel 5 in Nashville. “The people who want it have gotten it.”

The bother is that not sufficient folks need it, notably right here within the South, which accounts for eight of the 10 states with the bottom vaccination charges, and infections have begun to climb. “The rate of daily coronavirus infections in Tennessee has more than tripled in the past three weeks — one of the largest increases in the entire nation — as the virus shows signs of renewed spread,” wrote The Tennessean’s indefatigable well being reporter Brett Kelman final week. “The state’s average test positivity rate and count of active infections also climbed sharply in the same time period.”

Conservative Tennessee legislators responded, it’s true, however not by working to cut back vaccine hesitancy. Instead, they pressured state well being officers to cancel vaccination occasions geared toward youngsters and retract social media posts urging adolescents to get vaccinated. Worse, these anti-vaccination efforts weren’t restricted to the Covid-19 vaccine. Conservative lawmakers additionally urged the Tennessee Department of Health to halt outreach efforts designed to inform youngsters about all vaccines.

Worse nonetheless, they organized the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus. As medical director of the vaccine-preventable illnesses and immunization program on the Department of Health, Dr. Fiscus was the state’s high vaccine authority. “It was my job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against Covid-19,” she wrote in a press release. “I have been terminated for doing my job because some of our politicians have bought into the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign rather than taking the time to speak with the medical experts.”

The politicization of public discourse round immunization just isn’t distinctive to Tennessee. The query isn’t why Tennessee is so out of step with science. The query is why politics has something to do with well being coverage in any respect.

The planet is rising extra crowded, bringing folks into nearer contact with numerous animal and human populations. At the identical time, the well being dangers related to local weather change are ratcheting upward. But simply as safety in opposition to communicable illnesses turns into more and more pressing, conservative media shops are sowing doubt and delusion within the Republican base, and feckless elected officers are following swimsuit. Like Mr. Lee, his licked finger held aloft within the wind of rural white discontent, different Republican leaders within the South take their lifesaving vaccines in personal and provides lip service to perverse notions of “freedom” of their public statements.

Campaign funding from the nationwide oligarchs is what units legislative agendas throughout the purple states, so I can perceive why these penny-ante politicians are working so exhausting to restrict tax-funded security nets. I may even perceive why they’re so hell bent on killing public schooling. It clearly advantages the rich for taxes to be low or nonexistent and for poor folks to be incurious and compliant. But how can it probably profit the oligarchs to danger the lives of the very individuals who hold electing their toadies to statehouses within the first place? I simply don’t get it.

“I am afraid for my state,” Dr. Fiscus wrote. I’m afraid for my state, too. More than that, I’m afraid for my nation. Tech corporations received’t cease the unfold of misinformation about vaccines, and conservative leaders can’t rouse the political will to fight that misinformation with science.

I’m not saying all is misplaced. Even in Tennessee, 43 p.c of the inhabitants has obtained a minimum of one dose of a Covid vaccine, and 38 p.c are totally vaccinated. People are hugging each other and kissing infants once more, however individuals are additionally persevering with to die for no good purpose. Their cussed refusal to take a lifesaving vaccine is greater than a pity, and it’s greater than a waste. It’s a tragedy, an indication that we’ve got squandered our miracle. I’ve no religion that we are going to be given one other.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion author, is the creator of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”

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