Wilson County health care workers hope to begin distributing a COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable populations by the end of the month, according to a round table Zoom call held Thursday.

The county’s 7-day case average stood at 132 the same day, and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital President Jay Hinesley said the spread is expected to remain a threat through January based on current prediction models.

“That’s a very concerning trend. It’s having an impact on area hospitals, including this one,” he said. “We set a record on Dec. 8 for hospitalizations across the state … we did not set a record on the 9th, and that was the first day in several weeks that we had not set a new record for hospitalizations, so that’s a positive sign. Unfortunately, I think it’s just a blip. I do not think that trend is going to continue.”

State officials are currently in communications with health care workers and local governments to work out the details of vaccine distribution. Tennessee is preparing for an initial shipment of approximately 56,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“We are kind of in a time frame where assisted living and long-term care communities are in what is called Phase 1 in Tennessee,” Victoria Harrison of The Pavilion Senior Living said. “We’re in the process of trying to gather information for our family members. We’re gathering all that to get it out to them, so I think the understanding is that they would like to start these vaccines by the end of the month.”

Higher risk groups like seniors, health care workers and first responders are expected to be offered the vaccine first. Hinesley said the state is developing tiered risk groups as a guideline and expects to see a wave of vaccines being given through February.

“I do anticipate in the next couple weeks getting further instructions from the state for how to vaccinate our employees that are at the tip of the spear,” Hinesley said. “That will obviously have an impact, but it’s going to be a little while, I think, before we have enough people vaccinated for this to slow down.”

Health care workers are also preparing outreach efforts they hope will encourage hesitant families to get the vaccine.

“They do have to, at this point, have a consent to get a vaccine,” Harrison said. “That is up to them, that is up to their families. We are not going to force them to do that, we would obviously strongly encourage (it). At this point we’re just gathering information on vaccines to get it to these families so they can really be informed of what the vaccine is and the benefits of it.”

That push comes as the influx of patients threatens to put local hospitals and rehab centers at capacity.

“We have seen an increase in our hospice-in-place patients in area hospitals, in particular Summit Hospital,” Amy Allen of Alive Hospice said. “And we have seen patients being discharged probably sooner than they normally would have just to give that bed space to the hospitals.”

Home health care services have also taken on a surge of new patients since the pandemic started.

“Just in our care center alone in Lebanon … we’ve grown by 65 patients in our census that we keep since the end of March,” Abbie Stafford of Amedisys of Lebanon, said. “One of the reasons for that is that 50% of family members are now more likely to choose in-home care for their loved ones … and we feel this is going to continue to grow as our hospitals and rehabs reach capacity and more people are needing in-home services.”

Hinesley said VWCH has been able to add hospital rooms to meet the increased volume so far, which involves buying new beds and equipment as well as hiring additional staff.

“At least as of right now, I believe that we will get additional vaccines given to the states and counties each month to begin rolling out vaccinations to all citizens, eventually, who are willing and desire to take the vaccine,” he said. “The goal, obviously, is to take care of the most vulnerable, highest-risk first and move through that risk until we get to the lowest-risk folks who are willing to take the vaccine. But all of that’s going to unfold here starting in the next couple weeks into probably February.”

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