WAVERLY — Search crews worked through shattered homes and tangled debris on Monday, looking for about a dozen people still missing after record-breaking rain sent floodwaters surging through rural Tennessee, killing at least 22 people.
Saturday’s flooding took out roads, cellphone towers and telephone lines, leaving people uncertain about whether family and friends survived the unprecedented deluge, with rainfall that more than tripled forecasts and shattered the state record for one-day rainfall. Emergency workers were searching door to door, said Kristi Brown, coordinated school health and safety supervisor with Humphreys County Schools.
Many of the missing live in the neighborhoods where the water rose the fastest, said Humphreys County Sheriff Chris Davis, who confirmed the 22 fatalities in his county and said 12 to 15 people remain missing. The names of the missing were on a board in the county’s emergency center and listed on a city of Waverly Facebook page, which is being updated as people call in and report themselves safe.
“I would expect, given the number of fatalities, that we’re going to see mostly recovery efforts at this point rather than rescue efforts,” Tennessee Emergency Management Director Patrick Sheehan said.
The Humphreys County Sheriff Office Facebook page filled with people looking for missing friends and family. GoFundMe pages asked for help for funeral expenses for the dead, including 7-month-old twins swept from their father’s arms as they tried to escape.
The death of the twins was confirmed by surviving family members. A foreman at country music star Loretta Lynn’s ranch also died. The sheriff of the county of about 18,000 people some 60 miles west of Nashville said he lost one of his best friends.
Up to 17 inches of rain fell in Humphreys County in less than 24 hours Saturday, shattering the Tennessee record for one-day rainfall by more than 3 inches the National Weather Service said.
School was canceled for the week, according to the sheriff’s office. Waverly Elementary and Waverly Junior High suffered extensive damage, according to Brown, the schools health and safety supervisor.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee toured the area, calling it a “devastating picture of loss and heartache.” President Joe Biden offered condolences to the people of Tennessee and directed federal disaster officials to talk with the governor and offer assistance.
Just to the east of Waverly, the town of McEwen was pummeled Saturday with 17.02 inches of rain, smashing the state’s 24-hour record of 13.6 inches from 1982, according to the National Weather Service in Nashville, though Saturday’s numbers would have to be confirmed.
A flash flood watch was issued for the area before the rain started, with forecasters saying 4 to 6 inches were possible. Before Saturday’s deluge, the worst storm recorded in this area of central Tennessee had been 9 inches of rain, said Krissy Hurley, a weather service meteorologist in Nashville.
“Forecasting almost a record is something we don’t do very often,” Hurley said. “Double the amount we’ve ever seen was almost unfathomable.”
The first installment of the Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair is officially in the books, and representatives from the organization say they were extremely pleased with how it went.
Randall Clemons, Wilson County Fair president, said, “It was a great fair. Everybody came and saw that even with the state fair addition it was still the Wilson County Fair that they were used to since 1979.”
He also called it, “One of the smoothest operating fairs we have ever done.”
Clemons said that with the new addition of the state fair to the program, it gave them the opportunity to go out and get additional sponsors which in turn allowed them to bring in more activities. Typically those sponsors refrained from the Wilson County Fair so as not to leave out other county fairs, but Clemons explained that with the state fair in tow those sponsors were eager to help out.
Wilson County Promotions Executive Director Helen McPeak reported that the fair’s 10-day total attendance was 480,000 people. “We feel very blessed to have had so many people come out,” she said on Monday.
“We had rain every single day,” she said, but that didn’t stop people from coming out in droves. “I’ve always said the weather can make or break you, but we still feel like it was a very good fair.”
The vice president of Wilson County Promotions, Jimmy Comer, said, “We did have to tweak a couple of the events because of the rain, but were still largely able to hold most everything scheduled. When we opened the 10-day forecast, there was a 40% chance of rain every day,” Comer said, “So our numbers were down from two years ago.”
That turnout was slightly lower than in 2019, when the fair boasted a staggering 587,000 attendees. McPeak attributed that decline to surrounding scenarios that weren’t present in 2019, namely COVID and the negative weather forecast.
All the same, McPeak said, “It is wonderful to see everything come together, all the volunteers who are so passionate about throwing this fair. I can’t thank the first responders, sheriff’s deputies, Lebanon Police Department, Wilson County Emergency Management Agency and everyone behind the scene who made it work.”
Clemons said, “Our volunteers did a tremendous job with all the obstacles. That’s what makes our fair different from other fairs, is the volunteers, their work and passion in their particular areas.”
McPeak said that she was grateful for the injection of the state fair’s resources pertaining to putting on the statewide events, and added, “We are already gearing up and making plans for 2022.”
Speaking on the new improvements for future fairs, Clemons said, “We broke ground on our two new buildings, the Made in Tennessee Building, and our new learning center. Through next year we are going to be working to make this the largest classroom in the state.”
As the fair’s workforce is largely made up of volunteers, McPeak said their compensation comes in the form of the smiling faces on the crowds in attendance. “That’s what it’s all about, making memories.”
Although she was running around conducting her role as one of the lead organizers, it didn’t stop McPeak from taking in some of the fair for herself.
Spending time with her grandchildren and forging memories with them was what she said meant the most to her, but she added, “I enjoyed my fried green tomatoes, my Tennessee burger from Burger Republic and of course my ice cream from Shop Springs Creamery.”
The fair seemed to have a strong economic impact on the county as well. Clemons said, “Our hotels and motels were full every night, so we brought in a lot of tourists. All our state events we did all went well and we got a lot of compliments from people that hadn’t been there before.”
Clemons added that they are taking suggestions from the army of volunteers who helped out this year. “There is always room to improve. We’re just excited about what we got going on and what we are going to be able to do in the future.”
WASHINGTON — The U.S. gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Monday, potentially boosting public confidence in the shots and instantly opening the way for more universities, companies and local governments to make vaccinations mandatory.
The Pentagon promptly announced it will press ahead with plans to require members of the military to get vaccinated amid the battle against the extra-contagious delta variant. Louisiana State University likewise said it will demand its students get the shot.
More than 200 million Pfizer doses have been administered in the U.S. under special emergency provisions — and hundreds of millions more worldwide — since December. In going a step further and granting full approval, the Food and Drug Administration cited months of real-world evidence that serious side effects are extremely rare.
President Joe Biden said that for those who hesitated to get the vaccine until it received what he dubbed the “gold standard” of FDA approval, “the moment you’ve been waiting for is here.”
“Please get vaccinated today,” he said.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called the FDA’s action “an important milestone that I think will unlock some of the more skeptical minds.”
Pfizer said the U.S. is the first country to grant full approval of its vaccine, in a process that required a 360,000-page application and rigorous inspections. Never before has the FDA has so much evidence to judge a shot’s safety.
The formula, jointly developed with Germany’s BioNTech, will be marketed under the brand name Comirnaty.
Moderna has also applied to the FDA for full approval of its vaccine. Johnson & Johnson, maker of the third option in the U.S., said it hopes to do so later this year.
Just over half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. Vaccinations in this country bottomed out in July at an average of about a half-million shots per day, down from a peak of 3.4 million a day in mid-April. As the delta variant fills hospital beds, shots are on the rise again, with a million a day given Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine means it meets the same “very high standards required of all the approved vaccines we rely on every day,” said Dr. Jesse Goodman of Georgetown University, a former FDA vaccine chief. That should help “anyone who still has concerns gain confidence” in the shots.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would seek the president’s OK to make the vaccine mandatory by mid-September or once the FDA grants final approval, whichever comes first. On Monday, after the FDA acted, the Pentagon said guidance on vaccinations will be worked out and a timeline will be provided in the coming days.
The approval also opened the way for swift action by colleges to require vaccines and solidified the legal ground for hundreds of universities that have already issued mandates for students and staff.
LSU, with over 30,000 students, acted amid a surge in Louisiana that has repeatedly broken records for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. Some major college systems such as the University of Minnesota said they were waiting for FDA approval before making vaccinations mandatory. But some states forbid universities to require shots, including Texas and Florida.
“Mandating becomes much easier when you have full approval,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University. “I think a lot of businesses have been waiting for it.”
On the same day the FDA decision came down, New York City announced that all public school teachers and other staffers will have to get vaccinated.
Earlier this month, New York City, New Orleans and San Francisco all imposed proof-of-vaccination requirements at restaurants, bars and other indoor venues. At the federal level, Biden is requiring government workers to sign forms attesting that they have been vaccinated or else submit to regular testing and other requirements.
Anxious Americans increasingly are on board: Close to 6 in 10 favor requiring people to be fully vaccinated to fly or attend crowded public events, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The delta variant has sent cases, deaths and hospitalizations soaring in recent weeks in the U.S., erasing months of progress. Deaths are running at about 1,000 a day on average for the first time since mid-March, and new cases are averaging 147,000 a day, a level last seen at the end of January.
“For weeks we have watched cases go up at an alarming pace among individuals who are not vaccinated while the vaccinated are largely protected,” said Dr. Tomas J. Aragon, director of California’s public health department. “If you are not vaccinated, let this be the milestone that gets you there.”
The FDA, like regulators in Europe and much of the rest of the world, initially allowed emergency use of Pfizer’s vaccine based on a study that tracked 44,000 people 16 and older for at least two months — the time period when serious side effects typically arise.
That’s shorter than the six months of safety data normally required for full approval. So Pfizer kept that study going, and the FDA also examined real-world safety evidence.
Pfizer’s shot will continue to be dispensed to 12- to 15-year-olds under an emergency use authorization, until the company files its its application for full approval.
Normally, doctors can prescribe FDA-approved products for other reasons than their original use. But FDA’s acting Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock strongly warned that the Pfizer vaccine should not be used “off-label” for children under 12 — a warning echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have vaccine studies underway in youngsters, and they are using lower doses than those available for people 12 and older.
Pfizer’s Bourla said he expects study results from 5- to 11-year-olds by the end of September, but data for those younger than 5 will take a couple of months.
Also, Woodcock said health providers are offering COVID-19 vaccines under agreements with the government that should preclude using Monday’s approval as a pretext for offering booster shots to the general population.
Currently, the FDA has authorized third doses of either Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine only for certain people with severely weakened immune systems, such as organ transplant recipients. For everyone else, the Biden administration is planning for boosters starting in the fall. But the FDA is evaluating that question separately.
In reaching Monday’s decision, the FDA said serious side effects remain very rare, such as chest pain and heart inflammation a few days after the second dose, mostly in young men.
As for effectiveness, six months into Pfizer’s original study, the vaccine remained 97% protective against severe COVID-19. Protection against milder infection waned slightly, from a peak of 96% two months after the second dose to 84% by six months.
Those findings came before the delta variant began spreading, but other data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the vaccine is still doing a good job preventing severe disease.
All classes in Lebanon Special School District are canceled for the rest of the week because of the worsening COVID-19 surge. Meanwhile, the number of quarantined students and staff in Wilson County Schools has topped 2,000.
In an announcement made late Monday afternoon, LSSD said: “Due to the inability to staff our classrooms and buildings as well as the increasing number of student absences, the immediate need for separation has become apparent.”
While not providing actual numbers, the district said it expected absences among students, teachers and staff to continue to increase.
Unlike last year, school districts in Tennessee cannot go to remote learning. If school is not in session in person, then no education will occur. LSSD said in the announcement that it would be using “stockpile/inclement weather days,” for the rest of the week.
“Schools will be closed with no student engagement from home,” the announcement said. “All school based events including athletics and SACC will be closed for the remainder of the week.”
In addition, when school returns Monday, it will be in “masks requested” status systemwide.
“We are in strong need of participation so that we can stay in school,” the announcement said.
Tonight, the WCS board is scheduled to discuss its COVID-19 policies.
DrugFree WilCo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to de-stigmatizing drug addiction and educating the community about the dangers of drug use, is partnering with Middle Tennessee State University on a $1 million grant to expand opioid and substance abuse programs in Wilson County.
The nonprofit’s executive director, Tammy Grow, said the partnership began when Cynthia Chafin, the Center for Health and Human Services Associate Director of Community Programs at MTSU, sought them out due to the organization’s alignment with her own program’s goals and mission.
Capt. Scott Moore of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office, who is also the board chairman for DrugFree Wilco said in an email on Monday, “The Rural Communities Opioid Response Program implementation grant that was recently awarded to DrugFree WilCo, with the partnership from the Center for Health and Human Services at MTSU, will make a huge impact for helping those who are struggling with addictions.”
The Rural Communities Opioid Response Program is a multi-year initiative which began with a $200,000 planning grant awarded to the MTSU Center for Health and Human Services followed by the successful award of the $1 million implementation grant, both through partnerships for DrugFree WilCo.
Through the planning grant, the organizations were able to identify needs and gaps in resources/services to create an implementation work plan. That implementation work plan will include a variety of activities designed to educate, and mitigate, through education with family members, caregivers and the public on prevention strategies, partnership with the Naloxone distribution program in Wilson County and creation of an overdose map to provide accurate data for the county.
“These funds will enable us to provide the much needed resources and support to everyone who is affected,” said Moore. “At the end of the day, it’s about saving lives. The efforts that have been made from our community leaders and volunteers have been so invaluable when it comes to providing education for prevention and resources for treatment and recovery.”
DrugFree Wilco works to prevent and reduce drug misuse and addiction among youth and adults through education, communication, and by creating awareness of resources in Wilson County. Those resources will be greatly expanded through this partnership.
Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said in the news release, “DrugFree Wilco’s partnership with MTSU Center for Health and Human Services will make a difference and help save lives in Wilson County. Their efforts are supported by the Sheriff’s Office, all law enforcement and the many agencies working to help children and adults lead productive lives without addiction.”
With 61 deaths from overdoses in 2019, and increases in fentanyl and meth-related overdose deaths expected in 2020, prevention initiatives are needed and recovery response efforts are important for the health of Wilson County residents. The partnership of the grant is critical in these efforts.
The DrugFree WilCo board meets on the fourth Wednesday of every month at 3:30 p.m. All the meetings are being conducted virtually for now, but in the future it will be the Wilson County Courthouse, 228 E. Main St., Lebanon.