NASHVILLE — Tennessee is expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers, as well as people who are at least 65 years old, beginning Monday.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey announced the change in a virtual news conference on Tuesday while acknowledging that some counties have already begun vaccinating those groups.
Piercey said some of the larger metro areas of the state are moving slower on vaccinating their populations. While the vaccines are allocated to Tennessee’s 95 counties based on population, Piercey said some of the rural counties have a much lower rate of people wanting to be vaccinated and are developing a surplus.
Asked why the state doesn’t allocate some of the unwanted vaccine to the urban areas, Piercey said, “In order to be equitable and remain fair across the entire state, we are doing a population-based allocation.” She noted that Tennessee’s distribution plan was named as one of the most equitable by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Piercey said supply is the limiting factor in getting people vaccinated in the large counties, not staffing. Although she did not have an exact number, Piercey said she expects next week’s allocation of vaccines to Tennessee to be about 10% higher than in recent weeks, increasing to around 110,000 doses. In addition, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to be approved soon, and Piercey said Tennessee could begin receiving that as early as the first week of March. Tennessee currently is distributing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
In addition to the expanded age-based eligibility, people in the state’s 1b priority phase become eligible for vaccination on Monday. That includes K-12 teachers and child care workers. Workers at first responder agencies whose work does not involve significant public contact, such as dispatchers and administrative personnel, are also included. Airfield operations personnel, including air traffic controllers, were added to the 1b category on Tuesday.
The state is also working to make scheduling easier. Tennessee rolled out an online scheduling platform on Monday that allows residents to schedule vaccinations at county health clinics but not private businesses like pharmacies. The platform is initially available for the 89 Tennessee counties that do not operate their own health departments but will be available for the metro areas that chose to use it in the next couple of weeks. Those people who do not have access to the Internet can continue to schedule by phone, Piercey said.