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State's top health official sees rate of vaccinations stall
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Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told Rotarians on Thursday the state has hit a wall when it comes to getting people vaccinated for COVID-19.

The COVID pandemic showed the full power of disinformation.

That’s according to Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, who spoke Thursday to The Rotary Club of McMinnville.

Dr. Piercey clarified that misinformation is mistakenly passing along information which is not accurate. Disinformation, she stressed, is conveying blatant lies to intentionally mislead, with social media being a popular platform for that.

“If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that facts don’t change people’s minds,” said Piercey in discussing why some people are reluctant to get vaccinated. “People choose to believe what other people believe who are in their tribe, and by tribe I mean people who are like them.”

When it comes to getting vaccinated against COVID, Piercey said there’s about 20% to 30% of the population which will never get vaccinated, no matter what. This group often has a distrust of government.

Piercey said vaccination campaigns are not aimed at this group because their decision is not going to change. Piercey said health officials are instead targeting what she called the “malleable middle” which she says is about 15% of the population which might be convinced to get vaccinated.

“There are two reasons this group gives for not getting vaccinated,” said Piercey. “One is they ask, ‘Do I really need it?’ And two, they ask, ‘Is it safe and do I trust it?’”

Piercey said Tennessee is committed to making the vaccine available and allowing people to make the choice for themselves. But she said it’s concerning when people choose not to get vaccinated for the wrong reason.

“An alarming percentage of people say they’re more afraid of dying from the vaccine than they are from dying from COVID,” said Piercey. “To that I say just about everyone knows someone who had died from COVID. How many of you know someone who has died from the vaccine? There was no shortcut taken in the clinical safety of developing this vaccine.”

The COVID vaccine has always been free, but Piercey said the state has reached a point “where we can’t give it away,” meaning few people are lining up to get vaccinated. “We’ve hit a pretty big wall with vaccine hesitancy here in Tennessee,” she admitted.

Piercey was straightforward in saying Tennessee didn’t do everything right in handling COVID. But she said there were many areas where the state excelled.

One of those areas was how the state handled long-term care facilities. Piercey said the state made a commitment to COVID test every staff member at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This decision saved lives, she said.

“Tennessee’s long-term care deaths were 40% lower than other states,” said Piercey. “That’s 40% more grandmoms and granddads who are around because of it.”

She said Tennessee should also be commended for its testing program. She said from the very start, all residents were eligible to be tested for free and regardless of whether they were showing any COVID symptoms.

“We offered one of the first barrier-free testing programs in the nation,” she said.

Piercey noted mid-December was the peak in Tennessee for number of COVID cases per day and mid-January was the peak for number of COVID deaths per day. She said on Wednesday, there were 129 new reported cases of COVID across the state, a low number.

Additional comments from Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey can be here on the “Focus” radio show on WCPI 91.3 public radio. The program is scheduled to air Tuesday at 5 p.m., Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday, 1 a.m.