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The finishing touches

Now counting down in hours instead of days, the Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair is soon to be here, and the workers, vendors and volunteers at the fairgrounds remain hard at work putting all the finishing touches on the 10-day event.

Helen McPeak is the executive director for Wilson County Promotions, the nonprofit group that organizes and hosts the fair.

McPeak said that the fair uses different agricultural commodities each year to promote the event and that this year is “The Year of Beef,” with an overarching theme of Honoring Hometown Heroes.

“What better way to promote the fair and what’s more American than both of those?” McPeak asked.

Apple pie? Well there will be an apple pie contest this year, too. While the apple pie contest has long been a staple at the Tennessee State Fair, this will be the first time the Wilson County Fair will be hosting the competition.

There will also be nightly appearances by the Cowboy Ninja Warrior, Lance Pekus, who will be performing his array of stunts daily to promote the beef cattle industry. “Beef It’s Whats for Dinner Ninja Course,” will be showcased every day of the fair.

For anyone interested, Pekus has advanced to the later stages of American Ninja Warrior, the popular show on NBC, so after meeting him, festival goers can cheer him on from their sofas at home.

What it means for Wilson County

McPeak and Randall Clemons, president of the Wilson County Fair, said that it was an honor to collaborate with the Tennessee State Fair, adding that to have them recognize the prominence of the Wilson County Fair in negotiations shows just how impactful the county’s fair has been.

Clemons said that he is expecting a full turnout, matching totals from years past. In 2020, the pandemic forced the fair to shutter its doors, so the excitement around its return is being felt not just in the main office but among the volunteers and workers who, as McPeak said, “make all this possible.”

One of those workers, Shatena Cowan, likened the fair to a “family reunion,” and said she was thrilled people would be able to return this year after missing out on it in 2020.

Cowan, who has worked at the fairgrounds for a quarter century, said she knew the fair was going to be a big hit because people were ready to get back out after missing last year.

She said that she has always loved the fair and what it does for the community, as well as the staff that work so hard to put it on. “We love to see all the effort we put into setting up make so many people happy.”

Clemons echoed Cowan about the excitement pent up after a year off.

“We’ve got a great theme, program and items, and people missed out last year, so they are eager to get back out,” Clemons said. “We are going to have additional people coming with it being the state fair.”

Those people will be representatives from each of Tennessee’s 95 counties who will be attending the opening ceremony on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Farm Bureau Expo Center.

In a press release, Clemons said, “In the Farm Bureau Expo Center, when our entire state will come together for the special ceremony, every county in the state will be represented for a special program where Gov. Bill Lee will speak. The ceremony will celebrate the state of Tennessee and the previous Tennessee State Fair Board moving the location to the Wilson County Fair, Lebanon.”

Additionally, all 95 counties have been asked to exhibit two items showcasing assets of each county.

At the end of the ceremony, Lee will lead a parade out to the new “Made in Tennessee,” building for a groundbreaking event that will begin at 8 p.m.

The new building is scheduled to be completed for the 2022 Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair and will be the home of a competition for winners from 2021 county fairs and county events in roughly 40 categories, where they will bring their first place or best-in-show winners to compete.

The parade to honor the hometown heroes will take place after a military flyover, scheduled for the ceremony’s conclusion, and will feature a mule-drawn wagon followed by Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Charles Hatcher in an antique truck and Commissioner of Tourism Mark Ezell on a Tennessee Walking Horse.

In the release, Clemons called the fair’s upcoming opening day, “One of the greatest days in the history of Tennessee,” referring to just how significant it was that these two fairs were coming together as one for the first time.

Clemons said, “We are very excited about the future of the Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair as our entire state comes together for ten great days of celebration. We want this fair to showcase the agriculture of our entire state as well as the assets of all 95 counties.”

Clemons and McPeak both applauded the hard work of all the volunteers, estimated to be about 1,600 people, for their support and dedication in helping put on the fair.

McPeak also said that with help from Lebanon Police Department, Wilson County Sheriff’s Office and Tennessee Highway Patrol, they hoped to avoid any traffic mishaps and keep things running smoothly.

COVID, weather concerns

Clemons said that they will be recommending masks but not requiring them. He also said that they will encourage social distancing when possible.

Those are hardly the only steps they are taking. Clemons said that the carnival rides would be disinfected using a spray that kills the virus, that hand sanitizer stations would be set up all around the park, that operators would be wiping down seats and such on rides, and that festival goers could even get the seat of a ride cleaned off if they requested it.

Staff from Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital will also be on site offering vaccinations to any one attending the fair who wishes to receive one.

In the event of an unexpected storm, Clemons said the guests can go inside the buildings of which there are numerous, all of them filled with events or shows of some kind and ride out the storm from the shelter’s safety.

McPeak said with all the huge livestock buildings, the Ag Center and other dwellings on site, festival goers shouldn’t have any problem finding shelter should they need it quickly.

Questionable contracts could spur change in emergency powers

Lawmakers are probing billions of dollars in no-bid state contracts and spending since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tennessee, trying to rein in sole-source agreements that stuck the state with a raw deal.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, chairman of the Fiscal Review Committee, estimates the Department of Education alone entered more than 760 contracts totaling $1 billion from March 2020 through May 2021, based on information provided by Fiscal Review staff.

More $9 million of that went to New York-based TNTP for reading programs, a company that employs the husband of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. She sought approval through the state Central Procurement Office in advance and promised to distance herself from the deal. But some lawmakers still called it a conflict of interest.

Using funds from the federal CARES Act, the governor’s Unified Command Group also entered contracts or spending agreements totaling $742 million on everything from $25 million with Jones Lang LaSalle for enhanced janitorial services to $25.8 million with Horne LLP to handle disbursement of CARES Act funds.

Another $160 million contract was inked with Cross Country Staffing for COVID alternate care sites, though the state spent only $4.1 million on that agreement.

Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order enacting the state of emergency allowed departments and agencies to enter contracts without taking bids or going through normal procedures in an effort to expedite work and speed the supply line as Tennesseans sought everything from personal protective equipment to COVID-19 test kits.

Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, has been calling Lee Administration department heads before the committee to have them explain why sole-source contracts are necessary, including instances when they didn’t provide information to Fiscal Review staff in a timely manner under Senate rules.

For example, Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, even though he is retiring, is supposed to come before the panel next week to explain why a contract for parolee GPS bracelets is being amended just three weeks before the contract runs out.

At a Fiscal Review meeting in June, Gardenhire called for a negative recommendation of a Department of Education literacy screening contract with NCS Pearson Inc. It is a major piece of the Legislature’s effort to help children rebound from lost school time in the pandemic. But the department failed to provide the Fiscal Review staff with a breakdown of costs until the night before the meeting.

The Department of Education already held two contracts with NCS Pearson totaling more than $143 million to administer the TNReady test. Education officials said they were rushed to get the contract breakdown to Fiscal Review leaders but needed contract approval in an effort to provide school districts with literacy screening before the end of July.

Ultimately, the committee approved the contract but not without sending a message that proposed contracts are to be submitted to Fiscal Review staff 60 days before they’re finalized, based on Senate rules. State law requires at least 40 days.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Tennessee found itself woefully short of supplies, especially for personal protection equipment and COVID-19 testing. Gardenhire believes vendors took advantage of state departments looking to act quickly and failing to go through “the normal safeguards.”

During a December Fiscal Review Committee, Department of Health officials acknowledged being rushed to sign contracts within 24 hours because vendors were willing to drop them and go to another state.

“What I’m trying to accomplish is in the future what does the Legislature need to do to make sure that even under a pandemic-type emergency we have guardrails in place to protect the millions that we have and that things are done right?” Gardenhire says.

His investigation of the state’s no-bid contracts could be the “impetus,” he says, for an amendment to Tennessee’s Emergency Powers Act, which enabled the Lee Administration to enter sole-source contracts without going through normal protocol.

The State Comptroller’s Office is auditing the contracts awarded under the governor’s emergency authority, and results are to be made public this fall through March 2022, spokesman John Dunn said.

The effort to bring greater accountability to no-bid contracts goes all the way to the top of legislative leadership.

“Lt. Gov. (Randy) McNally continues to be concerned about sole-source contracts and has been in close contact with Sen. Gardenhire on this issue. While it could be dangerous to slow down this process during an emergency, he believes there can and should be due diligence. Even in an emergency, immediate reporting and maximum transparency needs to be a priority,” said spokesman Adam Kleinheider.

The governor’s Unified Command Group entered no-bid contracts and spending agreements worth three-quarters of a billion dollars during the 14-month time frame, records show. Some of those have proven to be embarrassing to the state.

The state spent $8.3 million with North Carolina-based sock manufacturer Renfro Corp. for masks that were given away to Tennesseans early in the pandemic. But the porous material didn’t meet CDC guidelines, and it was later revealed they were treated with Silvadur 930, a pesticide designed to eliminate foot odor.

The Health Department halted distribution until the EPA said they were safe because the concentration of the pesticide on the treated face masks was minimal.

The state inked a $13.5 million contract with a Hickman County company, Pale Horse, for personal protective equipment, paying $2.55 per N95 mask while some vendors were paid just 54 cents per mask. Metro Nashville Councilman Robert Swope, state director of former President Donald Trump’s 2016 Tennessee campaign, was managing partner.

The state was set to buy $165,000 worth of hospital gowns from Sexton Furniture Manufacturing Co., owned by Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton at a rate of $5.50 per gown, about double the amount other vendors were charging. The purchase order was later canceled.

Despite red flags raised by Health Department officials, Commissioner Lisa Piercey inked a $26 million contract with Utah-based Nomi Health, at the behest of the governor’s chief of staff, for PPE and test kits that turned out to be no good. The state, however, wound up paying nearly $6 million for services and goods, even though the equipment was stored at its warehouse and possibly never used.

Some of the items were veterinarian gloves used for animal breeding, not typical medical gloves. Piercey told Fiscal Review members the department was shocked when it saw what was delivered but had little recourse other than to try and get out of the deal.

Gardenhire believes it was a situation in which state departments were flooded with federal money in the midst of the pandemic and rushed to purchase equipment without asking tough questions.

That made vendors salivate at the prospect of easy money.

“I think it was just a train wreck happening, and I’ll bet you if we look across the country it happened in almost every state,” Gardenhire says.

State Sen. Heidi Campbell, a Nashville Democrat who serves on the Fiscal Review Committee, is digging in on the matter as well. She is harsher on the Lee Administration and its shortcomings on several purchases and contracts, saying many of them went to companies without experience.

Campbell contends “personal interest” was a factor in some of the contracts.

“I think it’s a situation where the state got overloaded with a lot of federal money and made some very questionable decisions about how to spend some of it,” Campbell says.

Gov. Bill Lee’s office did not respond to questions when asked whether the governor has concerns about the no-bid contracts.

Tennessee remains under a partial state of emergency, mainly to allow the National Guard to assist in COVID-19 vaccinations.

Tennessee Lookout is a nonprofit news site covering state government and politics.

'Code red': UN scientists warn of worsening global warming

Earth is getting so hot that temperatures in about a decade will probably blow past a level of warming that world leaders have sought to prevent, according to a report released Monday that the United Nations called a “code red for humanity.”

“It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to get worse,” said report co-author Linda Mearns, a senior climate scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

But scientists also eased back a bit on the likelihood of the absolute worst climate catastrophes.

The authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which calls climate change clearly human-caused and “unequivocal” and “an established fact,” makes more precise and warmer forecasts for the 21st century than it did last time it was issued in 2013.

Each of five scenarios for the future, based on how much carbon emissions are cut, passes the more stringent of two thresholds set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. World leaders agreed then to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above levels in the late 19th century because problems mount quickly after that. The world has already warmed nearly 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since then.

Under each scenario, the report said, the world will cross the 1.5-degree-Celsius warming mark in the 2030s, earlier than some past predictions. Warming has ramped up in recent years, data shows.

“Our report shows that we need to be prepared for going into that level of warming in the coming decades. But we can avoid further levels of warming by acting on greenhouse gas emissions,” said report co-chair Valerie Masson-Delmotte, a climate scientist at France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environment Sciences at the University of Paris-Saclay.

In three scenarios, the world will also likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times — the less stringent Paris goal — with far worse heat waves, droughts and flood-inducing downpours unless there are deep emissions cuts, the report said.

“This report tells us that recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid and intensifying, unprecedented in thousands of years,” said IPCC Vice Chair Ko Barrett, senior climate adviser for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With crucial international climate negotiations coming up in Scotland in November, world leaders said the report is causing them to try harder to cut carbon pollution. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called it “a stark reminder.”

The 3,000-plus-page report from 234 scientists said warming is already accelerating sea level rise and worsening extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms. Tropical cyclones are getting stronger and wetter, while Arctic sea ice is dwindling in the summer and permafrost is thawing. All of these trends will get worse, the report said.

For example, the kind of heat wave that used to happen only once every 50 years now happens once a decade, and if the world warms another degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), it will happen twice every seven years, the report said.

As the planet warms, places will get hit more not just by extreme weather but by multiple climate disasters at once, the report said. That’s like what’s now happening in the Western U.S., where heat waves, drought and wildfires compound the damage, Mearns said. Extreme heat is also driving massive fires in Greece and Turkey.

Some harm from climate change — dwindling ice sheets, rising sea levels and changes in the oceans as they lose oxygen and become more acidic — is “irreversible for centuries to millennia,” the report said.

The world is “locked in” to 15 to 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) of sea level rise by mid-century, said report co-author Bob Kopp of Rutgers University.

Scientists have issued this message for more than three decades, but the world hasn’t listened, said United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen.

For the first time, the report offers an interactive atlas for people to see what has happened and may happen to where they live.

Nearly all of the warming that has happened on Earth can be blamed on emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. At most, natural forces or simple randomness can explain one- or two-tenths of a degree of warming, the report said.

The report described five different future scenarios based on how much the world reduces carbon emissions. They are: a future with incredibly large and quick pollution cuts; another with intense pollution cuts but not quite as massive; a scenario with moderate emission cuts; a fourth scenario where current plans to make small pollution reductions continue; and a fifth possible future involving continued increases in carbon pollution.

In five previous reports, the world was on that final hottest path, often nicknamed “business as usual.” But this time, the world is somewhere between the moderate path and the small pollution reductions scenario because of progress to curb climate change, said report co-author Claudia Tebaldi, a scientist at the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Lab.

While calling the report “a code red for humanity,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres kept a sliver of hope that world leaders could still somehow prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, which he said is “perilously close.”

Alok Sharma, the president of the upcoming climate negotiations in Scotland, urged leaders to do more so they can “credibly say that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive.”

“Anything we can do to limit, to slow down, is going to pay off,” Tebaldi said. “And if we cannot get to 1.5, it’s probably going to be painful, but it’s better not to give up.”

In the report’s worst-case scenario, the world could be around 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.9 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than now by the end of the century. But that scenario looks increasingly unlikely, said report co-author and climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, climate change director of the Breakthrough Institute.

“We are a lot less likely to get lucky and end up with less warming than we thought,” Hausfather said. “At the same time, the odds of ending up in a much worse place than we expected if we do reduce our emissions are notably lower.”

The report also said ultra-catastrophic disasters — commonly called “tipping points,” like ice sheet collapses and the abrupt slowdown of ocean currents — are “low likelihood” but cannot be ruled out. The much talked-about shutdown of Atlantic ocean currents, which would trigger massive weather shifts, is something that’s unlikely to happen in this century, Kopp said.

A “major advance” in the understanding of how fast the world warms with each ton of carbon dioxide emitted allowed scientists to be far more precise in the scenarios in this report, Mason-Delmotte said.

In a new move, scientists emphasized how cutting airborne levels of methane — a powerful but short-lived gas that has soared to record levels — could help curb short-term warming. Lots of methane the atmosphere comes from leaks of natural gas, a major power source. Livestock also produces large amounts of the gas, a good chunk of it in cattle burps.

More than 100 countries have made informal pledges to achieve “net zero” human-caused carbon dioxide emissions sometime around mid-century, which will be a key part of the negotiations in Scotland. The report said those commitments are essential.

“It is still possible to forestall many of the most dire impacts,” Barrett said.

Pentagon to require COVID vaccine for all troops

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will require members of the U.S. military to get the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 15, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press. That deadline could be pushed up if the vaccine receives final FDA approval or infection rates continue to rise.

“I will seek the president’s approval to make the vaccines mandatory no later than mid-September, or immediately upon” licensure by the Food and Drug Administration “whichever comes first,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says in the memo to troops, warning them to prepare for the requirement.

He added that if infection rates rise and potentially affect military readiness, “I will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if l feel the need to do so. To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force.”

The memo is expected to go out Monday.

Austin’s decision comes a bit more than a week after President Joe Biden told defense officials to develop a plan requiring troops to get shots as part of a broader campaign to increase vaccinations in the federal workforce. It reflects similar decisions by governments and companies around the world, as nations struggle with the highly contagious delta variant that has sent new U.S. cases, hospitalizations and deaths surging to heights not see since the peaks last winter.

Austin said in his memo says that the military services will have the next few weeks to prepare, determine how many vaccines they need, and how this mandate will be implemented. The additional time, however, also is a nod to the bitter political divisiveness over the vaccine and the knowledge that making it mandatory will likely trigger opposition from vaccine opponents across the state and federal governments, Congress and the American population.

It also provides time for the FDA to give final approval to the Pfizer vaccine, which is expected early next month. Without that formal approval, Austin would need a waiver from Biden to make the shots mandatory.

Troops often live and work closely together in barracks and on ships, increasing the risks of rapid spreading. And any large outbreak of the virus in the military could affect America’s ability to defend itself in any national security crisis.

The decision will add the COVID-19 vaccine to a list of other inoculations that service members are already required to get. Depending on their location around the world, service members can get as many as 17 different vaccines.

Austin’s memo also said that in the meantime, the Pentagon will comply with Biden’s order for additional restrictions on any federal personnel who have not been vaccinated. Those restrictions will include wearing masks, social distancing and travel limits.

According to the Pentagon, more than 1 million troops are fully vaccinated and another 237,000 have received one shot. But the military services vary widely in their vaccination rates.

The Navy said that more than 74% of all active duty and reserve sailors have been vaccinated with at least one shot. The Air Force, meanwhile, said that more than 65% of its active duty and 60% reserve forces are at least partially vaccinated, and the number for the Army — by far the largest service — appears to be closer to 50%.

Military officials have said the pace of vaccines has been growing across the force, with some units — such as sailors deploying on a warship — seeing nearly 100% of their members get shots. But the totals drop off dramatically, including among the National Guard and Reserve, who are much more difficult to track.

Some unvaccinated service members have suggested they’d get the shot once it’s required, but others are flatly opposed. Military officials have said that once the vaccine is mandated, a refusal could constitute failure to obey an order, and may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Army guidance, for example, includes counseling soldiers to ensure they understand the purpose of the vaccine and the threat the disease poses. The Army also notes that if a soldier “fails to comply with a lawful order to receive a mandatory vaccine, and does not have an approved exemption, a commander may take appropriate disciplinary action.”

Military service officials have said they don’t collect data on the number of troops who have refused other mandated vaccines, such as anthrax, hepatitis, chicken pox or flu shots over the past decade or more. And they weren’t able to provide details on the punishments any service members received as a result of the refusal.

Officials said they believe the number of troops refusing other mandated vaccines is small. And the discipline could vary.

Also, service members can seek an exemption from any vaccine — either temporary or permanent — for a variety of reasons including health issues or religious beliefs. Regulations involving the other mandatory vaccines say, for example, that anyone who had a severe adverse reaction to the vaccine can be exempt, and those who are pregnant or have other conditions can postpone a shot.

Some have argued that those who have already had the virus — and have antibodies — are immune and thus should not have to get the shot. It’s not clear how the military will act on those types of assertions.

According to defense officials, some senior military leaders have expressed support for making the vaccine mandatory believing it will help keep the force healthy. Military commanders have also struggled to separate vaccinated recruits from unvaccinated recruits during early portions of basic training across the services in order to prevent infections. So, for some, a mandate could make training and housing less complicated.

Navy officials said last week that there has been only one case of COVID-19 hospitalization among sailors and Marines who are fully vaccinated. In comparison, the Navy said there have been more than 123 hospitalizations “in a similarly sized group of unvaccinated sailors and Marines.” It said fewer than 3% of its immunized troops have tested positive for COVID-19.

The other military services did not provide similar data.