July 23, 2021 12:00pm

Power Poll: State bungling vaccination outreach to young people

Delta variant spells disease rebound trouble for Volunteer State

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Well, that didn't take long. Tennessee opened, masks came off and people returned quickly to pre-COVID life. Restaurants and bars packed in the patrons. And those commute times got longer. We were on the rebound. But hold up, folks. What a lot of us weren't doing was getting a vaccination (more on that later). With Tennessee's full vaccination rate stubbornly sitting at 40% and the delta variant of the coronavirus spreading rapidly across the state, COVID case numbers and hospitalizations are spiking, prompting local public health leaders to warn of a third wave of the disease.

And while the state has done a good job of vaccinating the elderly — among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, other populations are lagging, especially younger folks, who appear to be taking the brunt of COVID infections these days. And that is where Tennessee finds itself in the news this week.

The state has halted vaccination outreach to adolescents (those 12 and up are eligible now to get the COVID vaccine; children younger are not expected to be eligible until late fall), the top vaccine official in the state Department of Health was fired, and on Thursday, Gov. Bill Lee doubled down on both developments. Reaction has been swift and severe. The Volunteer State has been the butt of late-night jokes, public health officials are stymied, and local and national opinion writers have slammed these actions.

Results from this month's Power Poll put survey respondents solidly in the “We did what?” camp.

In response to the question, “Do you agree with the state Health Department’s decision to halt vaccination outreach to adolescents?”, 78% of Power Pollers said “no,” while 11% said either “yes” or “don't know.” The responses from respondents to the same question in Nashville and Knoxville were slightly stronger than Chattanooga's: 81% said no in Knoxville, and 90% said no in Nashville.

The July Power Poll survey, conducted Monday through Thursday, drew 67 responses from various business, community and government leaders. The survey was sent to 109 Power Poll members and had a 61% response rate.

The monthly survey gauges what influential business, civic, education and nonprofit leaders and elected officials are thinking. While the survey is in no way considered a scientific poll, its results offer insights into the opinions and beliefs of key decision-makers in the area.

Chattanooga City Councilwoman Carol Berz is among elected leaders dismayed by recent developments.

“Tennessee's decisions regarding the vaccine are unfortunate and short-sighted. Obviously the economy won't be immediately hurt, as there are no restrictions. However in the long run, because Tennesseans are only 30-40% vaccinated — and children specifically are exempt — herd immunity cannot occur,” she wrote. “This is a health issue — not a political one, and I wish my state were among the more enlightened ones.”

Survey respondents worried that the state's actions could cause problems with our early and uneven recovery. Seventy-eight percent said “yes” to the question: “Are you concerned that the state Department of Health's actions will lead to a surge of new cases, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths and possibly affecting in-person schooling and business operations?” Another 13% said “no” and 9% said “don't know.” In Knoxville, 62/% were “very concerned” about a surge in cases, 21% were “somewhat concerned” and 17% said they are “unconcerned.”

Power Poll respondents also are concerned that the state's missteps could negatively affect Tennessee's business recruitment: In response to the question, “Do you think that the decision [on outreach] could be harmful to economic development efforts in the state?,” 70% said “yes;” 24% said “no” and 6% didn't know.

Almost all Power Poll respondents said they are fully vaccinated — 97% in Chattanooga and Knoxville, and 99% of respondents in Nashville. In Tennessee, 85% of those 65 and older are vaccinated and 47% of those aged 18-64 have gotten their shot(s).

The spike in COVID cases, spurred by the delta variant, is being called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.

Local activist Franklin McCallie summed up the feelings of many when he wrote, “Five cruelest words for Tennessee: '99.5% of deaths are unvaccinated'” as quoted in a recent Times Free Press.

Mark McKnight, who heads Reflection Riding, wrote that “this time around, the pandemic is both sad and preventable. … This recent decision to stop vaccine outreach seems particularly harmful to Tennesseans. ...This is madness.”

Public health experts note that the efficacy of the vaccines remains high, even though so-called “breakthrough” cases are making the news. The vaccines are preventing hospitalizations and deaths, statistics show.

Health department Administrator Becky Barnes reminded area resident that access to vaccines is not a problem.

“Our community has built great resources for vaccinations … access should not be a reason for not getting vaccinated,” she said earlier this week.

Contact Chris Vass, public editor at the Times Free Press, at cvass@timesfreepress.com.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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