MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On Monday morning Governor Bill Lee made the announcement many were anticipating, all Tennesseans 16 and up are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The federal government has asked us to make sure every adult can receive the vaccine by May 1 and Tennessee will beat that deadline,” said Lee.
Counties must move into the broader phase by April 5 but can make the move earlier if vaccine supply allows.
“That is no later than April 5. Some counties, there are counties, where all residents of all ages are now eligible,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey.
Right now those in phases one and two and those 55 years old and older can get vaccinated in Shelby County. Tennessee has three vaccine phases, and while phase three, which includes grocery workers and those in congregant settings like colleges, will be eligible along with the rest of the of-age population, the state will give those in phase three some priority.
“By and large phase three are contained populations,” said Piercey. “So while we’re not setting aside a specific time frame we will be directly allocating to a lot of those populations.”
Allocations are going up with eligibility. The state will get 311,000 doses this week and 350,000 next week, including a large shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. With increasing and demand falling even the state’s largest county saw the need to expand eligibility.
“As you know Memphis and Shelby County requested, made a formal request, to me last week to go to that and they now have permission to do so,” said Piercey.
On Monday afternoon, the City of Memphis announced it would move into phase 3 of its distribution plant offering the vaccine to anyone 45 and older. Adults 16 and older would be eligible for the vaccine beginning March 26.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has made references to the slower than usual pace of appointments filling up. More than 35,000 opened up last week and many remain open.
About 500,000 vaccination appointments in Tennessee remain open. These are signs the state said show the uptake in the vaccine is declining, and the time for expanded eligibility is now.
“One of the reasons we are pushing forward on expanding eligibility is because our uptake is lower than expected particularly in our rural areas,” said Piercey. “In rural West Tennessee, less than 20 percent of our appointments are filled.”
Piercey said Tennessee is not alone. Her counterparts across the South are seeing a similar lack of enthusiasm.
“We’re all seeing the same thing particularly in rural areas, communities of color, more low-income workers and more rural conservatives,” she said.
Piercey admits, that last group, rural white conservatives, threw the state for a loop. She said very little has been done to target that demographic.
“We’re talking to not only other states to share best practices but we’re talking to groups where a lot of rural conservatives tend to gather or get together and really dig down and see what’s causing the hesitancy and how we can overcome that,” said Piercey.
To see what phase your county is in click here.
To book a vaccine appointment in Shelby County, visit covid19.memphistn.gov or call 222-SHOT.
For appointments elsewhere in Tennessee, visit vaccinefinder.org.