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Tennessee Vaccinations Slow Despite Efforts by Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton made headlines throughout the Coronavirus pandemic for her charitable contributions to vaccine research. Early on, the country star donated donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center for their experimental efforts. The work conducted at Vanderbilt eventually led to the creation of the Moderna vaccine. Therefore, Parton's move was helpful in combatting the virus nationwide. But her gift also highlighted the key motive which has always driven Parton's philanthropy: her Tennessee roots. The Sevier County native has funded many initiatives within the state. Through her Dollywood Foundation, Parton created the highly successful Imagination Library as well as the locally focused Buddy Program.

So naturally, when Parton realized the necessity of an effective Coronavirus vaccine, she turned to Vanderbilt University: Tennessee's own bastion for academia and scientific research. Prior to the rollout of vaccinations, Parton's role in the matter caused a buzz among country fans and concerned citizens alike. Everyone wanted to know when we could expect a Covid-19 vaccine! But as a new op-ed in The New York Times points out, Tennessee has continuously quashed opportunities to promote the vaccine and has thus failed "its favorite daughter."

Dolly Parton's Vaccine Activism

Back in 2013, Parton was involved in a minor car accident which led her to seek treatment at the Vanderbilt health center in Nashville. There, Parton met Dr. Naji Abumrad and the pair quickly became close friends. Despite coming from vastly different backgrounds, Parton expressed a sincere interest in medical science and the work going on at the labs in Vanderbilt. Years later, when Covid-19 vaccine research was just beginning, Parton wanted to know more. She wanted to do more, too. So in April of last year, Parton made a $1 million donation to the Covid-19 research being conducted at Vanderbilt. She even made the check out in the name of her friend Dr. Naji Abumrad.

Speaking on how Dolly Parton helped fund Coronavirus research, Abumraid said, "Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing. Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it." Not only did Parton contribute directly to the vaccine which has already saved countless lives, but in the doctor's own words, the publicity she lent to the cause has been immeasurable.

On March 2, 2021, Parton received her first dose of the Moderna shot at the Vanderbilt health center in Nashville. The moment was transformed into a PR event after Parton sang, of course, the spoofed lyrics to her hit "Jolene":

"Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine

I'm begging of you, please don't hesitate.

Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,

because once you're dead, then that's a bit too late."

Parton topped off her message with a direct challenge to all the "cowards out there" refusing the vaccine. "Don't be such a chicken squat! Get out there and get your shot!" She exclaimed. Naturally, the footage went viral on social media along with the (perfect) caption: "Dolly gets a dose of her own medicine." At that time, the possibility of getting Moderna's covid-19 vaccine was still an exciting development. Since then, however, vaccination rates across Tennessee have stalled dramatically. You might think that an all-American sweetheart like Dolly Parton would be enough to sell the vaccine to more suspicious folks. Especially Tennesseans! But, increasingly, it seems that's not the case.

"Dolly Parton Tried. But Tennessee Is Squandering a Miracle"

Today's edition of The New York Times featured on op-ed essay from guest contributor Margaret Renkl entitled "Dolly Parton Tried. But Tennessee Is Squandering a Miracle." Renkl's piece outlines the state's utter failure to vaccinate residents on a large scale. Renkl is a writer whose body of work covers both science and politics and her new op-ed bridges both those topics to affirm how, exactly, Tennessee missed the point of Parton's philanthropy.

Currently, just 38 percent of Tennesseans have received both their first and second dose of the shot compared to the 48 percent national average. And last month in Tennessee, state officials returned three million doses to the federal stockpile because, simply, no one else wanted it. "We're sort of grinding to a halt," health commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey announced in late June. But rather than combat their constituents' hesitancy, politicians in the state have discouraged further outreach.

According to Renkl, Tennessee legislators have pressured state health officials to cancel vaccination events for teens as well as remove online posts which urged teens to get vaccinated. (The CDC officially recommends that everyone age 12 and up get vaccinated, with children receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.) Additionally, these same legislators organized the firing of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state's competent — now former — vaccine director. According to the Associated Press, a performance review just prior to her termination commended Fiscus' "strong leadership" in the face of "intense scrutiny and performance expectations." Since then, Fiscus has written bluntly about the politicized nature of her firing in the face of a public health crisis.

All of these decisions on the state level have a very real, very traceable effect. Confirmed cases of the virus in Tennessee have tripled in the past three weeks. For a state that prides itself on being the birthplace of Dolly Parton — her face and bust plastered around from Nashville to Memphis — Tennessee owes it to Dolly to get their people vaccinated. As cases spike, Renkl's article is a serious reminder. Dolly Parton never gave up on Tennessee. Renkl suggests we hold politicians to the same standard.

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