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Tennessee governor declares that Covid-19 is no longer a health emergency with only 25% of state’s residents fully vaccinated

Stephanie Amador / The Tennessea

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signaled Tuesday that he will not renew any public health orders, saying “Covid-19 is no longer a health emergency in our state,” though only 25% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

“A widely available vaccine changes everything and it’s a new season in Tennessee,” Lee said in a tweet.

Health experts say that to reach herd immunity, somewhere between 70-85% of the population probably needs to be immunized. According to the state’s website, 24.7% of its population are fully vaccinated, and 34.4% have had at least one shot.

“We are in the very bottom tier of states in the proportion of our population vaccinated,” Professor William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, told CNN. “Covid continues to be a serious public health urgency throughout the state. The virus is still spreading. It’s still putting many people into the hospital.”

Lee’s move follows those of other governors in easing restrictions. An order by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp rolled back many restrictions on April 8, including doing away with a ban on gatherings and distancing requirements, for example, in restaurants and bars. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott last month lifted the state’s mask mandate and allowed all businesses to open at 100% capacity.

Lee tweeted he is removing the authority from local officials to issue mask mandates in Tennessee’s 89 counties that don’t have independent health departments, and he urged officials in the other “Big 6 counties” of Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan — which have their own health departments — to remove any and all remaining mask mandates and business restrictions before Memorial Day.

“We have never had a statewide mask mandate and I am removing authority from local officials to issue mask requirements,” Lee tweeted. “This is about trusting Tennesseans, using the tools we have at our disposal to move on from crisis management and back to life and back to business.”

Lee said upcoming executive actions will address economic and regulatory issues.

“It’s time for celebrations, weddings and conventions and concerts and parades and proms and everything in between to happen without limits on gathering sizes or other arbitrary restrictions for those events,” Lee said, according to the Tennessean.

Nashville said earlier Tuesday it would keep its indoor mask mandate in place, even as it lifts other restrictions on May 14, according to the Tennessean.

In the two weeks ended Sunday, Tennessee reported almost 21,000 new cases — more than 1,000 a day — according to CNN data. About 150 Covid-19 deaths were reported.

Southern states lag other states in vaccinations

Lee’s new order contrasts sharply with new guidelines issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say while fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks at small outdoor gatherings or when dining outside with friends from multiple households, unvaccinated people should still wear a mask at such gatherings.

Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you should avoid large indoor gatherings, the CDC said. And for the fully vaccinated who do choose to attend a crowded outdoor event, such as a live performance, parade or sporting event, wearing a mask is still recommended.

More than 29% of the US population has been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, and more than 37% have had at least one shot.

Tennessee is among a number of states in the South that lag the nationwide vaccination pace, according to CDC data. It has administered about 57,000 doses per 100,000 residents, compared with New England states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, which have administered well over 80,000 doses per 100,000 people.

Georgia has administered just over 57,000 doses per 100,000 residents, and Mississippi has given more than 52,000 per 100,000. In Alabama, where new Covid-19 cases have jumped more than 10% in the past week over the previous seven days, less than 51,000 doses have been administered per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday extended his Covid-19 emergency order for another 60 days, saying it was necessary to keep schools open and protect Floridians from being required to produce a vaccine pass “as a condition of participating in everyday life.”

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