NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMC/WSMV) - Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey sat down with our Nashville NBC affiliate, WSMV, to talk about the state’s ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts and the problems that can, and do, arise.
The short supply being a critical factor in the speed with which the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed in Tennessee.
“What I’m waiting on is increased supply, and as soon as I get an increased supply, I will distribute it as quickly as I can,” said Piercey.
She called the state’s supply “limited,” and admits it’s increasingly frustrating.
Tennessee has received about 700,000 doses since COVID-19 vaccines were first made available in December, but only about 400,000 have been administered, leaving the rest in refrigeration units across the state.
“Almost every one of those doses that haven’t been used already have an appointment attached to them,” said Piercey. “Everybody who’s gotten the first dose in Tennessee has a second dose waiting on them.”
All 95 county health departments and a few major hospitals have received vaccine doses to cut down on redistribution time and eliminate waste.
“We deploy the vaccines we get very quickly,” she said. “That means we run out quickly. We’re not having trouble getting the vaccine out, we’re having trouble getting the vaccine in.”
Piercey says state Departments of Health log into a nationwide database called Tiberius each Tuesday to request additional doses for the following week.
Tennessee is assigned 80,000 doses -- the maximum amount -- which Piercey says they request weekly. But the state is not guaranteed to receive that many doses.
“Some of our health departments are getting a very limited supply right now -- 100 or 200 doses per week,” she said. “They can go through it in a day.”
She says she’s been told to expect an increased supply the last week of January, but it could be later.
Meanwhile, the state is organizing a network of providers, including doctors’ offices and pharmacies, that will eventually administer vaccines when more doses become available.
“I think we’ve had over 1,800 providers say ‘yes, we want to be a vaccination site,” she said.
So far none of those sites have been used because of low supply.
Piercey says her department will practice mass vaccinations as it awaits more doses.
“Based on my conversations with my counterparts and federal officials, I think we’re one of the few states doing this, and it puts us in a uniquely well-prepared position,” she said.
Tennessee remains in the 1a phase of vaccine distribution, including people 75 and older. She says there are about 450,000 residents in that age group, and 100,000 still need to be vaccinated.
Teachers are in the next phase.
“I’m hopeful that we can have all of our schools vaccinated maybe in the next 30 or 45 days,” said Piercey. “In fact, in many counties, that has already begun.”
She said many school districts have the personnel and refrigeration units to handle administering the vaccines themselves. Smaller districts are working with the state and their local county health departments to develop a vaccination plan.
As for how long it could take for regular Tennesseans, she said Walmart stores may have the largest reach in rural communities.
“I think in the next two or three weeks you will start to see a very few number of Walmarts get their first doses,” said Piercey. “It won’t be a lot because I don’t have a lot right now. But in order to get to the most vulnerable and to remove barriers to vaccination, we too will be pursuing retail pharmacies, probably in the next couple of weeks.”
She also talked about the federal Retail Pharmacy Partnership, which could be activated by April 2021, and would involve shipping vaccines directly to 18 national pharmacies, including Kroger and Walgreens, to lessen state’s burden of distributing doses.
“At the end of the day, if people get vaccinated out of phase, it’s still a vaccine in an arm,” she said. “It’s still one more immunized person who is not going to spread this disease to others, and so I count that as a win too.”