NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee governor's office is pushing back on COVID-19 vaccine misinformation that goes as far as claiming cows are being vaccinated to inoculate unwitting people who eat meat.
The confusion over an assortment of outlandish claims illustrates the hurdles that face a state in the bottom 10 for vaccination rates amid a virus resurgence stretching hospitals thin.
In an email Thursday to lawmakers, a top deputy of Republican Gov. Bill Lee debunked "several conspiracy theories" about a recent executive order. The email says some components that are being most frequently misinterpreted were included in previous executive orders during the pandemic. Lee's office said lawmakers seeking information for constituents and constituents themselves have reached out about the claims.
The push to debunk shows how prevalently misinformation is swirling among unvaccinated circles, even as hospitals of all sizes have begun running out of staffed beds. Vanderbilt University Medical Center said its adult hospital and emergency department are "completely full," as it is limiting elective procedures and declining transfer requests from many hospitals. More than 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations there are unvaccinated people, while vaccinated patients are also severely immunocompromised, the hospital said.
The rumors deemed "FALSE" in the governor's office email are that his executive order creates "quarantine camps"; that the National Guard will round up unvaccinated people and take them to locations to be quarantined or vaccinated, or forcibly vaccinate them in their homes; that the executive order lays the groundwork for permanent lockdowns; and that COVID-19 vaccines are being given to livestock to vaccinate people through meat consumption.
Lee's administration has a program that incentivizes farmers to vaccinate cattle against respiratory diseases and other illnesses, but not COVID-19.
"All of these examples, and related rumors, are demonstrably false. Additionally, Tennesseans who serve in our National Guard have faithfully served their communities in many capacities this year and we are grateful that they remain committed to serving their neighbors," wrote Brent Easley, Lee's legislative director.
Easley wrote that he hopes lawmakers will "join us in sharing the facts."
Claims about Lee's handling of the pandemic continue to swirl, particularly among far-right groups, as he approaches his 2022 reelection bid. Democrats and some health advocates, meanwhile, have criticized the governor's approach as insufficient to protect people from the pandemic. Lee has opposed a statewide mask mandate throughout the pandemic, has touted Tennessee for being one of the last to close early in the pandemic and among the first to reopen, and pairs his praise for the vaccine with reassurance that it's a personal choice.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Tennessee has risen from 1,724 on July 28 to 3,775 on Aug. 11, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. The number of people currently hospitalized with the virus in the state has risen to almost 2,100, state numbers show, with 10% of hospital floor beds and 7% of intensive care unit beds available. Fifty children are among those hospitalized, according to the state.
State health officials have noted recent upticks in COVID-19 vaccinations. But Tennessee still has the 9th-lowest fully vaccinated rate among its total population at 39.8%, below the national rate of 50.4%, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker.
The COVID-19 resurgence through the delta variant left a top leader of a hospital outside Nashville exasperated Thursday — and unable to find open staffed hospital beds in the area.
Geoff Lifferth, chief medical officer at Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, said on Facebook that "someday when the sun is shining again, we can sit down and have some interesting conversations" about "personal freedoms, and mandates, and government overreach, and such." But he said can't right now.
"As an ER doc and a healthcare administrator, this past week has been one of the most exhausting and disheartening of my career," Lifferth wrote. "The delta variant has burned through us with a ferocity that's hard to describe."
Vanderbilt University Medical Center, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) away, said transfers are being placed in hospitals around Nashville to try to balance the load, despite capacity and staffing challenges.
"This is a significant stressor to our health care staff and providers," Vanderbilt said in a statement. "Patients we are treating for COVID are all ages, with some in their early to mid-20s being very sick."