OPINION: Our Hamilton County state lawmakers betrayed us with their COVID-19 votes

Nov. 8—Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger was about as accusatory as he ever gets publicly last week he spoke about the fact that not one member of the county's legislative delegation, or anyone from the governor's office or the state health department, sought his input they shaped and passed a bill to gut the county's ability to make its own decisions on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That betrayal by our Republican state officials — betrayal is our word, not Coppinger's — is unconscionable.

The non-confrontational Coppinger's word was "disappointing."

"It was a little disappointing to me to see the state want to take that authority away from local governments," said Coppinger, also a Republican. "We'll obviously comply with what we have to, but again the people closest to the people should be making those decisions, in my opinion."

State and local health departments across the country — and local school boards, as well — have become the target of state legislatures looking to rein in their authority to implement preventive and public health practices to stem the spread of the dangerous and preventable COVID-19. The virus has killed more than 16,500 Tennesseans in 20 months and sickened nearly 1.3 million.

"I did not get one single phone call to ask me what my opinion was. Or anybody, our health department didn't. Nobody. Nobody asked the people on the ground that are dealing with this what we thought," Coppinger said. "They call a special session. They do what they choose to do. It doesn't mean they have to, but from where I sit, I mean, I always, whoever is going to be impacted, I call and say, 'How's this going to impact you?'"

The lawmakers voting for this — all Republican in our supermajority GOP state government — shaped this bill because they fear being primaried by far-right extremists who've protested against face masks and vaccines.

Many of these measures — mask mandates, quarantines and other actions — date back to colonial times, where they were regularly imposed to curb infectious disease outbreaks ranging from smallpox to yellow fever.

But Tennessee's new legislation, passed hurriedly in a special session lawmakers themselves called when Gov. Bill Lee resisted their request, do not — as some like our own Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, have suggested — simply offer guidelines to help.

Rather, according to a 2021 report from the National Association of County and City Health Officials, they hinder, adding "a level of bureaucracy and politics that undercut the flexibility and timeliness of local public health orders and make it harder for public health experts on the front lines to protect and respond."

To mandate face masks going forward, the new Tennessee law would require the governor to declare a state of emergency and counties to report at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. Even then, the mandate may last only 14 days unless the cases threshold continues to be met. The threshold is set far too high.

Dr. Paul Hendricks, a former emergency medicine physician who retired from the Hamilton County Health Department's top medical position in February, bluntly compared being forced to meet such a high case rate before initiating a mask mandate to watching a trauma patient bleed out.

"And they say, 'Well, let's wait until he bleeds a few more quarts, and then we'll stop the bleeding,'" Hendricks said. "It's just ridiculous. I don't know where they got their information, where they got these numbers. They said they consulted with some people, and I have no idea who they consulted with. Obviously, no one called me."

Clearly, they consulted the same hacks who've been screaming at school board members and pushing ivermectin, bleach and other snake oils over proven public health strategies like masks and vaccines.

Gardenhire, who usually is reliably sensible, fell off the turnip truck on this one.

"Hamilton County wasn't the problem, he told the TFP. "The problem was Shelby County, Davidson County and Knox County."

Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties had the good sense and audacity to implement mask mandates in schools and limit gatherings.

Hamilton County, on the other hand, has been wide open since our mask mandate was lifted in late April. Further, our schools pioneered the "opt out" mask mandate that Lee adopted statewide, but the larger metropolitan counties later challenged in courts.

That opt-out prompted a late summer surge in Hamilton County as our youngsters went back to school in mid-August and many contracted COVID's Delta variant, resulting in our school-age children soon becoming a quarter of Hamilton County's new COVID-19 cases. On Friday, following the passage of this inane legislation, Hamilton County Schools lifted its mask requirement.

We hope we're wrong, but we fear COVID-19 is not done with us. We are abandoning commonsense preventive measures when only 51% of this county is vaccinated in a state that is the eighth least vaccinated nationally.

No, neither we, our mayors, school officials, parents and friends don't have COVID hysteria.

But our too-red GOP lawmakers certainly have primary hysteria.