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Health leaders stress shots, masks as outbreak surges

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As hospitalizations, deaths and COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb in Tennessee, health experts on Friday pleaded with the public to get vaccinated and continue to wear a mask.

In a letter distributed by the Tennessee Hospital Association, a group of chief officers and chief nursing officers stressed that the latest surge of the virus outbreak is taking a deep toll on the state's frontline workers and wreaking havoc on families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

"We grieve for family members as we watch them say their final good-byes," the letter stated. "We also are frustrated that the simple steps that could greatly reduce the loss of life are not being taken by all Tennesseans."

As of Friday, there were nearly 1,395 new cases per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, which ranks third in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 134 people in Tennessee tested positive in the past week, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.

Meanwhile, 42.1% of the population is now fully vaccinated against the virus.

Gov. Bill Lee told reporters earlier this week that the vaccine was the key tool to overcoming the outbreak. But he said he had "no plans" to change the state's current pandemic mitigation strategy. Lee, a Republican, has faced criticism from some medical experts and Democrats for not enforcing stricter measures to combat the virus.

Masks are a key virus-prevention tool that are most effective when worn by a large number of people, public health experts say. The CDC has again recommended them for schools, saying they don't pose health risks for children older than toddler age.

However, Lee has recently signed an executive order allowing parents to opt out of the mask requirement. Hundreds of students have been attending classes without masks ever since. Two lawsuits have since been filed attempting to overturn the statewide order.

As of this week, children made up nearly 40% of the state's reported cases. Hundreds of students throughout Tennessee have been forced to quarantine or isolate due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some schools have closed classrooms, while others have temporarily switched to virtual learning.

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