Tennessee officials face criticism over holding doses of COVID-19 vaccine for days

Leaders question delay in Tennessee vaccine distribution

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We’ve watched Mid-South health care workers in Arkansas and Mississippi get vaccinated. Finally Wednesday, the first shot was given in Tennessee.

Our Nashville affiliate WSMV-TV reported the city’s’ Clinical Research Associates has been running a Pfizer vaccine trial since August, and they were given the approval to un-blind their patients.

Dr. William Polk, a surgeon, was the first patient identified as meeting the criteria to get the vaccine and is the first known person to receive the vaccine in Tennessee, as hospitals still wait for their shipments.

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Despite Memphis being the medical hub of the Mid-South, hospitals here and across the rest of the state will not get vaccines until Thursday.

“We are losing people at an alarming rate. We are gaining new cases of coronavirus at an alarming rate in our state, and we are sitting on these vaccines that people that want them could utilize and take right now,” said Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson.

Parkinson said he does not understand why Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s administration has been sitting on doses of COVID-19 vaccine since Monday.

The topic even came up Wednesday morning at a Shelby County Commission committee meeting.

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“I read something about the state holding onto an initial distribution, which I don’t quite understand,” said Michael Whaley, Shelby County Commissioner.

The state got an initial 975 dose shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine Monday but said in a news release it was storing it as an emergency backup supply should any hospital’s first shipment be damaged. On Thursday, 56,550 doses are expected to be received at 28 sites covering 74 Tennessee hospitals.

“If we’re not in an emergency right now, I don’t know what you would call an emergency,” said Parkinson.

Baptist employees in Jonesboro Arkansas got vaccines Monday and Baptist Desoto employees in Southaven Mississippi got them Wednesday.

First vaccines given in Jonesboro, Ark.

Dr. Jeff Warren is a Memphis City Council member and a physician on the city-county COVID-19 task force. He told WMC Action News 5 this on the delay:

“It would be really nice if the vaccine would be distributed and we would all be able to get it as rapidly as possible,” he said.

Tennessee is in the midst of a post-Thanksgiving surge, reporting a record-breaking 11,410 new COVID-19 cases statewide Wednesday. The state is sitting at number two on the CDC’s list for states and territories with the highest average daily cases per capita.

Shelby County has reported nearly 2,700 cases in the past three days.

Reporting on the vaccine delay, The Tennessean in Nashville cites a Lee administration official as saying there was no way to “equitably” choose which facility got the first 975 doses.

“We have multiple spots in the state right now that need the vaccine. That’s why we’re choosing to send it all at the same time on Thursday,” said the official.

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Longtime former Lauderdale County state representative and now Ripley mayor Craig Fitzhugh wrote on Twitter discussing Tennessee’s delay in vaccinating.

“Deciding to wait to be equitable in a pandemic where our beloved state is hemorrhaging victims is no decision at all,” Fitzhugh said.

WMC Action News 5 reached out to Lee’s office for comment. Our inquiry was forwarded to a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Health.

“Given the Pfizer vaccine’s very specific storage and handling requirements, coupled with geography and population distribution of our state, we sought to eliminate, or minimize, additional transportation and redistribution with selected hospitals receiving their Pfizer vaccine shipments directly. This will allow hospitals to begin administering the vaccine as soon as it arrives. The state is holding a small amount in reserve should any shipments be found to be damaged upon delivery,” wrote Bill Christian, with the TN Department of Health.

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