NASHVILLE — Tennessee is making moves to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for people in households with medically frail children and workers at jails and prisons, while residents 70 and older are expected to start getting shots in the next two or three weeks, the state’s top health official said Friday.
The progression coincides with challenges in getting enough vaccines in Tennessee and nationwide. Tennessee did not see an increase in its regular allotment as it had expected to this month after a promise from federal officials and signals of production ramp-ups by manufacturers, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told reporters.
“I’m hopeful that that’s just like a week delay, and that we’ll start seeing something for the first week of February,” Piercey said.
The state had already been receiving a lower weekly allocation on average than was promised by the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed: 80,000 instead of 90,000, Piercey said. It also didn’t help that federal officials discussed a reserve of second doses that ended up being exhausted, Piercey said.
If the state had a sufficient number of vaccines, Tennessee could quickly open mass vaccination sites and work with retail pharmacies to administer the shots, Piercey said.
“Within a day or two, I could deliver a 5x multiple” of vaccinations, Piercey said. “And within a week or two, I could deliver a 10x multiple. It’s just the product that I don’t have.”
People living with medically frail children will be eligible in an upcoming vaccine phase alongside medically frail adults. Parents, caregivers and other household residents with children who are in wheelchairs, have had organ transplants, are on at-home ventilators or are on dialysis are among those who could be eligible in that phase, Piercey said.
With no COVID-19 vaccines approved yet for children younger than 16, Health Department spokesperson Shelley Walker said there’s “emerging research to suggest vaccines may prevent infection and thereby prevent transmission of the virus, in addition to preventing COVID-19.”
Corrections officials and jailers were recently bumped up on the list to receive a vaccine, Piercey said. They are a higher priority than inmates because of the “significant risk to both our society and perhaps our economy” if correctional facilities can’t be staffed because of COVID-19, Piercey said.
Data from the CDC shows that 4,752 out of 100,000, or about 4.8% of people in Tennessee, have received at least one or more doses of the vaccine, ranking it 23rd among the states.
Tennessee has almost finished giving first doses in all nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities, and began administering them in assisted-living facilities last week. CVS and Walgreens are handling more than 90% of the long-term care facilities in Tennessee, she said.
Additionally, Piercey said some counties could begin to inoculate people 70 or older sooner than in two or three weeks.
The state had hovered at or near the worst per capita rate of new infections for several weeks, and officials feared gatherings around Christmas and New Year’s could make things even worse. However, recent case numbers have Piercey thinking that the state might be in the clear for now. There’s still concern that the new COVID-19 variant that appears to be more transmissible — and which has been discovered in Tennessee — could blunt the progress, she said.
There were 938.6 new cases reported per 100,000 people in Tennessee over the past two weeks, which ranks 16th in the country for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.