NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – COVID-19 cases among children are increasing, with more deaths being reported by hospitals.

The rise in cases comes as the highly contagious delta variant is renewing familiar warnings, including proposals to bring back some mask mandates. However, Tennessee leaders say the days of masking up are over, despite children 12 and under being unable to get the vaccine.

Despite more children being exposed to and getting severely ill with COVID-19 in Tennessee, Governor Bill Lee is not responding to questions regarding the uptick in cases.

“We’ve got four people in the pediatric ICU in Knox County, they’ve got four in Ballad Health, we’ve just had two children die in Memphis,” Rep. Gloria Johnson said. “This is real, parents are legitimately concerned.”

The East Tennessee Representative says the debate and decisions about masking up should be left to local officials — not politicians at the State House.

“The reality is if folks don’t mask we’re going to see a lot more people sick and a lot more people die,” Rep. Johnson said.

Dr. Ritu Banerjee, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is echoing the concerns public health officials are making.

“I anticipate we’re going to see a rise in overall infections in our hospitalization rate and also the number of children who are acquiring the COVID-19 infection,” Banerjee said.

When asked again, Gov. Lee did not want to talk about COVID-19 and the deaths from children so far in the state after claiming children do not get sick from COVID.

“We know a little bit about long COVID for kids, but not everything and so we’re making a risk that we don’t have to make,” Johnson said. “It’s not like at the beginning of COVID when we were unsure, we didn’t have a vaccine, and masking and social distancing were all we had we have more tools in the toolbox right now.”

As students are heading back to school, doctors say masking up could be the surest way to keep kids safe.

“One of the safest measures for keeping children free of Covid is masking in schools especially for younger age group groups that have not been vaccinated,” Banerjee said.

The Tennessee Department of Health is reporting nearly 170,000 covid-19 infections among those newborn to 20 years old. As of August 3, 12 deaths have been reported among those under 20 since the start of the pandemic.