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Tennessee adjusts COVID-19 vaccine timeline as federal supply falls short of expectations

The state is adjusting its vaccine distribution plan and timeline due to limited availability, and to reprioritize some of those at risk.

NASHVILLE, Tenn — The Tennessee Department of Health on Friday released an updated COVID-19 vaccination timeline as the state continues to grip with a lack of supply of vaccine from the federal side.

TDH Director Dr. Lisa Piercey said Tennessee remains more than ready to distribute and administer greater numbers of vaccine across the state, but is held back by the trickle of incoming supply it has received so far from the federal government.

If the supply increases, Piercey said the state would "love to be able to do mass vaccination sites, whether it's FEMA or on our own." Potential locations could include Dollywood, Opryland, and Nissan Stadium.  

"We're just waiting on product and then we can open up those sites," she said. 

The state adjusted its vaccine distribution plan and timeline to match the current availability pace as well as to reprioritize some of those considered high-risk.

The new plan moved jailers and corrections staff up in priority to include them in the first responder category so they can receive a vaccine now as part of phase 1a1, citing the risk of spread within the confined spaces they work in. Prisoners and those held in jail won't be able to receive a vaccine until phase 3, though.

Credit: TN Dept. of Health

The state also added people living in homes with medically fragile children to its high-risk priority. Children under 16 have not been approved to receive the vaccine, so the state will prioritize their parents and caregivers alongside people 16 and up with high-risk medical conditions in phase 1c -- which is anticipated to begin in March/April across most the state.

The Tennessee health commissioner also explained why Shelby County - the state's most populated - is currently lagging behind most other counties in the state for its population that's been vaccinated.

Dr. Piercey said it's not because Shelby County is being shortchanged, but rather the larger scale, size and scope of the Memphis area's first priority groups in line.

"They are still getting what is due to them for their health care workforce and that is not a per capita allocation because obviously Shelby County has a lot more health care workforce than Giles County does," Dr. Piercey said.

Piercey said some rural counties in the state reported a drop in demand from people 75 and up, meaning they were ready to move on to the next phase. The state allowed those counties to distribute vaccines to people 70 and up in the meantime in order to keep the distribution moving, saying most counties under TDH need another two or three weeks minimum to vaccinate people 75 and up.

So far, TDH said 116,000 of the roughly 400,000 people 75 and up in the state have received their first COVID-19 vaccine. About 100,000 are still on a waiting list to receive one. 

Vaccination availability at doctors' offices and pharmacies could be months away still, the state indicated.

On its current timeline, the state is anticipating most counties to move to Phase 1b -- which includes educators, school and childcare staff, and first responder operations personnel -- sometime in February or March. People 65 and up are expected to also be included in March.

For everyone else in Phase 2 and beyond, the timeline is up in the air and dependent on how quickly the federal government can ramp up vaccine distribution.  You can read Tennessee's vaccine plan at this link.

Piercey said federal distribution to Tennessee up until now has fallen short from what was promised from "Operation Warp Speed." State health leaders said they got 382,250 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine in December, but only expect about 185,000 this month.

"As far as Operation Warp Speed, it was back in December or early January we were told Tennessee would receive 90,000 first doses a week. That's really like 80,000 is what we're seeing," she said.

Piercey said the state was also told a reserve of vaccine had been planned for release, but that "didn't happen." 

"That hurt as as well," Piercey said. "We have the workforce. We have the space. We just don't have the product. All we need is vaccine from the federal government."

The Biden Administration said it will retire the name "Operation Warp Speed" due to the "urgent need to address the failures of the Trump team approach to vaccine distribution." The federal distribution effort is receiving a new name and leadership under the new administration, with a goal of distributing 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to states in the next three months. 

Roughly 15 million first doses have been administered across the U.S. since mid-December -- which is roughly 4.5% of the entire population.

(TENNESSEE HEALTH DEPARTMENT NEWS RELEASE) - The Tennessee Department of Health has updated Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan as the state continues to prioritize Tennesseans most at risk of illness and death from COVID-19.

Protecting Medically Fragile Children and Adults

Tennessee has added people living in households with medically fragile children to Phase 1c of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. Vaccination of their parents, caregivers and other household residents will help protect these children, as at this time no COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for use in children under age 16. Phase 1c also includes people age 16 and older who have medical conditions that put them at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. This group is further defined in the updated plan, and occurs earlier in Tennessee’s plan than in federal vaccination recommendations.

Correctional Officers and Jailers in Phase 1a1

Tennessee correctional officers and jailers have been added to Phase 1a1 of Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. These Tennesseans work in settings and roles that require frequent direct public exposure through close contact in confined spaces, placing them at high risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

Prioritizing Age-Based Risk

Age-based criteria run concurrently to the phases in age brackets beginning with those aged 75 and above.

The estimated timeline and phases of Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan are preliminary and subject to additional changes pending further recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and other federal and state partners.

Tracking COVID-19 Vaccination

Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Reporting dashboard is available online at www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/covid-19-vaccine-information.html. This dashboard will be updated Monday – Friday each week beginning Jan. 22.

COVID-19 vaccine supplies remain limited, and availability of vaccines varies by county. Tennessee counties may progress through COVID-19 vaccination phases at different times depending on supplies of vaccines. Tennesseans can learn what phase of the vaccination plan they’re in and register for an appointment when they are eligible at https://covid19.tn.gov/covid-19-vaccines/eligibility/.

Tennessee’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan is available online at www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/COVID-19_Vaccination_Plan.pdf. Find answers to frequently asked questions about COVID-19 vaccination at https://covid19.tn.gov/data/faqs/.

What is a coronavirus? How does COVID-19 spread? Why wear a mask? This page answers some of the most common questions about COVID-19.