Find the biggest updates about the coronavirus pandemic in our live blog, below.
A more infectious strain of the COVID-19 virus, known as the Delta variant, is on the move in Tennessee. The state’s health department has counted about 20 cases so far, concentrated in Shelby County.
The number is almost certainly an undercount since a majority of positive COVID tests are not screened to determine the particular strain. And if they’re not distributed statewide yet, they won’t be isolated for long.
“Just like with any variant, people travel. So will the variant,” says Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health.
However, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines seem to be effective at preventing serious disease, underscoring the need for more people to take the vaccine. Southwest Missouri, like parts of rural Tennessee, still has counties with just a third of residents fully vaccinated.
For Tennesseans who haven’t taken the vaccine or who don’t have some natural immunity through recovering from COVID already, it’s just a matter of time before one of the variants reaches them, Piercey says.
“You will either ultimately be vaccinated or be infected,” she says. “We want people to hurry up and get vaccinated because these variants are starting to spread here.”
Republican lawmakers are threatening Tennessee health officials with defunding their department if they don’t curtail what they see as marketing the COVID vaccine to children. The saber-rattling arises from a state memo explaining how teenagers could legally be vaccinated without parental consent.
This letter, sent to vaccine providers in May, states that under legal precedent, children 14 and up are usually considered mature enough to make medical decisions for themselves, if necessary. But Republican officials already skeptical of the COVID vaccine saw it as the state trying to go behind the back of parents.
Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, was grilled this week at the state capitol, and Republican legislators had more points to make than questions to ask. Rep. Iris Rudder, R-Winchester, held up a social media ad featuring a teenager, smiling with a bandage on her arm.
“It’s not your business to target children. It’s your business to inform the parent that their child is eligible for the vaccination,” she told Piercey. “So I would encourage you before our next meeting to get things like this off your website.”
Moreover, lawmakers have been collecting anecdotes from anti-vaccine constituents who say their kids are getting pressured at school. Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield believes it’s inappropriate, if not illegal.
“A football coach or a band director or a drama teacher or whoever it is, ought not be to be telling kids, ‘Hey, just come and get done so you don’t have to sit out,’ ” he said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We’re getting to the point we’re getting proactive, we’re meddling.”
Not ‘whispering to kids’
The Republicans who are raising objections note that ample vaccine is now available, and still less than half of Tennesseans have been vaccinated. They conclude that not being vaccinated is now a choice for most of them.
Piercey says her department has not encouraged teachers to pressure students into vaccination.
Her department could only find eight instances in which minors have been vaccinated without a parent. Piercey says five of them were already at a local health department for other services and were offered the shot as a convenience. “The other three were my own children, who I sent unaccompanied to get their second dose because they’re 16 and their mom works,” she said.”
Piercey says she thinks kids should get the shot since studies have shown them to be safe in children. But she adds that parents should be in the loop in almost every case. The rule allowing minors to be vaccinated without consent, she says, is mostly about reaching young people who have undocumented parents who don’t want to interact with the government or parents who are absent, perhaps struggling with a drug addiction.
“If you will allow me to speak somewhat frankly,” she told the Government Operations Committee, “I think there’s a sense that we are hiding in dark alleys and whispering to kids, ‘Hey, come get vaccinated.’ We’re not. We’re not doing that. We’re not encouraging that.”
Still, Republican lawmakers have called Piercey back for another hearing in July, in which they plan to discuss dissolving the department if it doesn’t tone down the pitch for kids to get vaccinated.
Auto plants across the South are hitting a wall with COVID vaccination rates among their workers. And heightened demand for cars has their assembly lines running full tilt. They’re eager to prevent any COVID-related downtime, but unsure how hard to push.
Vaccinations have slowed so much at General Motors’ manufacturing site in Spring Hill that plant manager Jeff Lamarche doesn’t feel good about asking the Maury County health department back out for a third round.
“They weren’t wanting to do it for onesy, twosies,” he says. “They were looking for a bigger event.”
Lamarche says the last time they came out, it was pretty slow, even though fewer than half of employees tell him they’ve been vaccinated on company surveys.
“The further you push it, you’re just not getting any more response rate. It’s maxed out. What do you do?” he asks. “You move on and say, ‘We’re all responsible adults.’”
GM has resisted turning to financial incentives, though at least one other automaker has gone that route. Toyota is offering every worker a $100 bonus when they send in a picture of their vaccination card.
Emily Lauder leads the effort across Toyota’s American plants.
“That’s how we’re tracking the percentages of folks that are vaccinated site by site,” she says.
The rates range from around 30% at the high end to less than 15% where Lauder is based, Toyota’s Mississippi plant. She says the rate of workers taking the vaccine mirrors that of the state they’re in — higher in Kentucky, much lower in Mississippi, for example.
With car sales humming, it’s not a question of whether the company could afford up the ante on the incentives. They’ve contemplated giving away cars, like a plantwide sweepstakes. But they’re torn.
“Some of the other incentives we’ve considered, we’re still struggling with how far to go,” Lauder says.
Plus, there’s employee morale to consider — which is a big deal at a car plant with thousands of workers.
“You go and offer an incentive to someone who has not [had the vaccine yet], and then the people who already got it say, ‘Well, what about me?’” says Robert Burns, who leads human resources for Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, Ala.
While the Hyundai plant hasn’t sweetened the pot for its 3,000 workers, it has tried to make it easy to get the shot in a partnership with a local health system. It’s tried to convince workers of the perks of losing masks, being able to sit together at lunch and no more prepackaged food in the cafeteria.
“There’s things we do that we’d like to get back to some degree of normal, and that’s the rationale for it,” Burns says.
It’s working for Hyundai, with better than half of employees immunized. And last month, Burns says the plant had just one positive COVID case.
The owner of HatWRKS in Nashville is apologizing for trying to sell yellow badges shaped like the Star of David to protest political pressure to get the COVID vaccine. But her backpedaling only came after hat makers, including the Stetson brand, announced they would no longer work with the Nashville store.
As a result of the offensive content and opinions shared by HatWRKS in Nashville, Stetson and our distribution partners will cease the sale of all Stetson products. We thank you for your continued support and patience.
— John B. Stetson (@StetsonUSA) May 29, 2021
Stetson was joined by other designers, including Goorin Bros. of Los Angeles.
Due to the recent offensive content shared by Hatwrks in Nashville, Goorin Bros. has ended their distribution with this business effective immediately. Thank you for the continued support.
— Goorin Bros. (@GoorinBros) May 30, 2021
Protesters gathered outside the store on Eighth Avenue South Saturday morning to oppose the use of a symbol that led to the Holocaust, holding a sign that read “No Nazis in Nashville.”
The backlash came swiftly following a now-deleted Friday afternoon post from hatWRKS, announcing the sale of gold stars that read “not vaccinated.” Aside from the $5 stars, the store announced plans for trucker caps.
This store is no stranger to controversy. It has offered “mask-free shopping” through the pandemic. Its social media posts regularly condemn coronavirus restrictions. The store even purchased a billboard to call out “cancel culture.”
“In no way did I intended to trivialize the Star of David or disrespect what happened to millions of people,” owner Gigi Gaskins said in an apology post on Sunday. “My intent was not to exploit or make a profit. My hope was to share my genuine concern and fear.”
Gaskins says she never sold any of the adhesive stars.
But she stands by her pushback against what she considers government overreach in the promotion of COVID vaccines, even though the government has not required anyone to take the shots. But some institutions, like universities and even the military, are beginning to put limits on those who choose not to get vaccinated.
“I was willing to put my business on the line to stand up for the freedoms that we still have in our country,” Gaskins said. “What I didn’t expect was being accused of the very things I was fighting against.”
You couldn’t pay Patricia Wrye to get her COVID shot. The Lebanon native says she not an anti-vaxxer. She even takes the flu shot most years. She just feels like somehow she’d be one to come down with rare complications.
“I’d like to wait and see how this first wave of inoculations go, and I might consider it later,” she says.
And even though experts recommend the vaccine for 45-year-olds like her with some medical history, she has too many questions.
“The experts have yo-yoed on their opinions so many times, I don’t trust that at this point,” Wrye says.
Tennessee has no plans to join the states offering financial incentives to stoke interest in COVID vaccinations, even though they’re showing some promise elsewhere.
But money could move the needle for some. Paola Delvalle, a 24-year-old who just wrapped up a graduate degree at Cumberland University, says she’d consider it if she were in West Virginia, where they’re giving away $100 savings bonds to anyone under 35 who gets the vaccine.
“You give them $100 to put a shot in them, I don’t think they’ll ask questions. They’ll just think of what they’ll do with that $100,” she says. “I would think that.”
Delvalle is expecting her first child, so she’s decided to wait on her vaccine given the lack of data on pregnant women.
Tennessee health officials tell WPLN News they have no plans to start dangling incentives to up vaccinations. But they do seem to be showing promise elsewhere. Ohio is giving away $1 million dollars a week in a vaccine lottery. The initiative is being credited with reviving the pace of vaccinations among young people, which had fallen off this month.
North Carolina, which already has some of the South’s highest vaccination rates, is starting an incentive program. The state is offering $25 cash cards in a handful of counties that need a boost. Dr. Mandy Cohen, who leads North Carolina’s health department, says they’re also available to anyone who drives someone to get a shot.
“This is a team sport,” Cohen said in her virtual fireside chat this week. “So we wanted to recognize that we need everyone to help.”
While other Southern states have leaned more on PSAs than promotions, individual cities are announcing new incentives by the day. Nashville has a free beer or coffee program through the end of the month and more incentives in the works.
Local health officials are trying to avoid another COVID surge as people become more comfortable getting together — vaccinated or not.
Nashville’s COVID vaccination effort is now in the “following crowds” phase. And it turns out, some events have been big successes, while others have totally flopped.
For whatever reason, people were in the mood for vaccines at the Nashville Zoo on Sunday. A total of 208 people took shots, including 50 children. Some were busy parents who came purposefully for the convenience. Others were more of the “begrudging type,” who just dropped their objections on the spot and took the shot, says epidemiologist Leslie Waller of the Metro Public Health Department. They included one-third from outside Davidson County.
Why did it go so well? The nice weather helped, Waller says, but even the organizers haven’t figured out what works. So, they’re just trying to create opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise seek out a shot.
“We’re still trying to see what’s going to stick, really,” she says. “We’re kind of as baffled as everybody else as to why a place like the zoo would have such a great turnout. And in other locations, we might do like two or three people.”
Nearly four in 10 who got vaccinated at the Nashville Zoo — including most of the out-of-towners — chose the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, suggesting they valued the convenience.
Recent Vaccine Events
By comparison, the Full Moon Pickin’ Party in Percy Warner Park on Friday night yielded just three takers for the whole evening. Maybe because it was held in the southwest quadrant of the city, which has Davidson County’s highest vaccination rates. But it’s hard to know.
Waller says health officials aren’t ready to give up on any types of event or parts of the county just yet, with vaccination rates still shy of 50% countywide. They’ll be at an East Nashville benefit concert on Sunday. Even the busts are seen as a learning experience, she says, not a waste of time.
In Nashville, two sites continue to offer COVID vaccines on weekdays. In surrounding counties, local health departments are offering shots on weekdays without appointments and are also scheduling a limited number of weekend events.
Maintenance staff at Middle Tennessee State University will spend the next few weeks removing signs about social distancing and mask requirements. MTSU has announced that, effective immediately, face coverings are no longer required, and there are few capacity limits.
“Given the ready supply of vaccine available to the campus, as well as throughout the state and nation, we believe members of our community can make informed and individual choices about their health and safety,” says President Sidney McPhee says in a statement.
MTSU is not requiring vaccination, unlike public universities in some other states including Indiana. Faculty, staff and students who have not been vaccinated are still encouraged to wear a mask. Masks are also required for everyone on MTSU shuttle buses.
Of public universities in Middle Tennessee, Tennessee Tech has also announced that masks have become optional. Signage is being changed to only ask people who haven’t been vaccinated to wear a mask.
Tennessee State University and Austin Peay State University have made no announcements. An APSU spokesman says a new policy is in process. He also says the campus is at least discussing a vaccine requirement, though it’s unclear whether public universities would be allowed under a new state law.
Tennessee has recorded 908 COVID cases among vaccinated residents. That’s roughly what scientists would have expected, even as they lauded how effective the COVID vaccines are.
By comparison, the state has recorded more than 150,000 COVID cases since anyone was fully vaccinated. So, the so-called “breakthroughs” represent just a fraction of 1% of the total cases, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects that the documented breakthrough cases probably represent an undercount. Most people who’ve been vaccinated likely wouldn’t show any symptoms and have no reason to get tested.
Fourteen people have died after getting the vaccines, but Dr. David Aronoff, director of infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says other factors were likely in play.
“Many times they’re being hospitalized for things completely unrelated to COVID, or they are highly immunosuppressed or immunocompromised people, for whom we would predict they would not have a robust response to vaccines,” he says.
Aronoff says the key to stomping out COVID is having enough people taking the shot so that when someone does get sick, it makes it hard for anyone else to get infected. And when they contract the virus, the symptoms are less severe or non-existent.
Aronoff says the vaccines have performed remarkably well on both counts. However, there have been 14 fatalities in Tennessee and at least 132 nationwide, according to the CDC.
“We don’t need vaccines to be perfect to help get us out of this pandemic,” he says.
Tennessee has launched a targeted ad blitz trying to get COVID vaccine holdouts to reconsider. The messages, titled “Give It A Shot,” were carefully crafted by recent work with a Tennessee focus group of vaccine skeptics.
The survey and focus group results revealed slight variations in concerns and trusted sources of information by race, location and ethnicity.
The focus group found that rural, white residents trust their personal physician above all other sources regarding the vaccine. So in one ad targeting the most hesitant group of rural, white conservatives, a young man wearing a Carhartt shirt and hat, buying a box of nails at a hardware store, mentions his doctor.
“There are a lot of opinions being shared,” he says to the camera. “But I had a chance to talk with my doctor about my concerns. He told me the vaccines are backed by decades of research.”
Black residents in Tennessee, however, put slightly more trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So there’s a specially tailored PSA addressing those concerns.
“I checked what the CDC says and spoke with my doctor about the potential side effects,” a Black man narrates as a Black doctor puts a Band-Aid on his arm. “It definitely made me much less anxious.”
The Tennessee Department of Health is spending $2.5 million placing the ads — available for viewing here — and trying to focus them on parts of the state where vaccinations are lagging most. Vaccination rates have slowed primarily in rural communities. Memphis has also fallen further behind other cities in the state.
“We recognize many Tennesseans have questions or concerns about the COVID vaccines, and our goal is that these messages help to address some of those hesitancies,” says Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s health commissioner. “At the end of the day, my hope is we will continue to see a steady increase in vaccine uptake across our state as more and more individuals feel more comfortable and confident in receiving the vaccine.”
Worship online just isn’t the same, even after a year of getting used to it. Yet widespread vaccinations haven’t resolved all the questions of how to gather again, despite the eagerness of congregants to see each other again.
Churches have even upped their production quality. In a video produced for Facebook, the choir at the Temple Church in Nashville sings, spaced out, in the parking lot. Members like 73-year-old Rogers Buchanan watch the stream from their couches.
“They talk about people staying at home and missing their restaurants and going places and travel and all that. The only thing I’ve missed in this whole year is going to church,” Buchanan says with a laugh. “What little I travel and go to restaurants is not that important.”
Sunday morning services are the main reason Buchanan, who is a city bus driver, rolled up his sleeve to get vaccinated at a nearby church in February. His preacher told members they should, and that if enough people got vaccinated in the community, services could resume more normally.
“I usually follow my pastor pretty well,” he says.
Even as the most vulnerable have pretty well gotten their COVID-19 shots in Nashville, Temple Church still hasn’t returned to in-person worship services.
Many congregations in Nashville — especially those with predominantly Black members — have taken a more conservative approach to getting back together. And no government regulations are stopping them.
The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Leath is the bishop overseeing African Methodist Episcopal churches in Tennessee and Kentucky. While many have held vaccination events for members, almost all worship — on the bishop’s recommendation — has remained virtual.
“I have advised congregations, you cannot ask people if they’ve been vaccinated,” he says.
He worries inquiring might encourage deception.
“We’re supposed to be encouraging truth,” Leath says. “So why tempt someone to lie? I also do not want to create a class of lepers, of sorts, within congregations.”
So if A.M.E. congregations want to go back to in-person gatherings, he’s still requiring masks for everyone, no hugs or handshakes, and — critically — no maskless singing.
Relegating unvaccinated members in the balcony — or some other segregating policy — just doesn’t feel right to most church leaders. But some are willing to draw a distinction between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.
At Acklen Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville, preacher J.P. Conway greets members as they arrive with some instructions.
“If you’re vaccinated and you’d like to take your mask off when we sing, feel free,” he tells them, directing everyone to the church lawn.
Conway says he never wanted anyone to feel too much pressure. But people started volunteering that they’d gotten the shot. So he began giving weekly updates in Sunday school on Zoom and then from the pulpit — like a church might do with the weekly offering.
“We were basically telling people what percentage of our church had been vaccinated every week,” he says. “So that was an indirect way of saying, ‘we think you should all do this.'”
If they did, the church would ease its restrictions. Singing without masks was one motivator for many, though not yet indoors. And sleepaway church camp is back on for August.
“One thing we kept saying is, ‘if we get the vaccine, we can do more,'” Conway says.
While part of an evangelical denomination, Acklen draws a less conservative crowd than many congregations in the Church of Christ. So there hasn’t been much of the political division that has appeared in surveys about vaccine hesitancy.
But even those who were not first in line for the vaccine got excited about the prospect of a fully vaccinated church.
When psychology professor Jaclyn Spivey got the shot last month, she sent a celebratory text first to her family, then to her preacher. She messaged Conway while still waiting her 15 minutes to see if she’d have an allergic reaction.
“I wanted to be added to the list,” she says.
The running tally at church became part of her motivation.
“Not peer pressure, exactly. But solidarity,” she says.
Now 99% of members 16 and up have self-reported getting vaccinated. Pastor Conway says he’s just taking their word for it.
“Because if people are going to lie,” he says, “we have bigger problems.”