NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Like much of the United States, Tennessee continues to wrestle with COVID-19. With the threat of additional variants, cases are beginning to trend in the wrong direction again.

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader and Nashville doctor, Bill Frist, said leadership matters, and preparation is key in dealing with COVID now and into the future.

“Compared to other states, I’d give Tennessee, probably a, B,” Frist said.

It’s a passing grade so far in the state’s COVID response.

“It’s a rural state, lots of different opinions, it’s a red state and red states have tended to not be as aggressive in terms of vaccination and miss some of the communication,” Frist said.

But Frist, a Republican, said more can be done, including reducing health disparities.

“If you happen to be a person of color or a person in a vulnerable population your chance of dying from, for example, a virus or a pandemic is much higher even if everything else is the same.”

He added shoring up investments in public health will be important.

“Variants are going to continue to come,” Frist said. “In 2005, when I was majority leader of the United States Senate, I basically predicted a pandemic that was going to kill about a half a million people. I said I don’t know when it’s going to come but it’s going to come — that’s science, these viruses are smarter than us and they’re changing constantly and they’re going to come again.”

Frist, who was a part of the Nashville COVID-19 response review to examine the impact of COVID and issued recommendations, said leadership will be key in the success of fighting back against the virus.

“We had a president of the United States saying one thing, typically or often inconsistent with science,” Frist said. “We had the science side by side saying something quite different, and yeah, it changed over time, because science changes over time, but that message was very different than what our state Legislature was saying, and what the governor was saying and that’s very different than what local communities were saying.”

With just 50% of Tennesseans vaccinated, near the bottom of all states, Frist said consistent communication of trusted leaders should be a priority.

“That inconsistency of communications, especially in times of crisis leads to hesitancy, distrust to locking down to say no I don’t want a vaccine or no I’m not going to listen or to go and listen a little bit more to these misinformation sources so that needs to be addressed,” Frist said.

Over 17,600 Tennesseans have died so far from COVID complications.