As other states on Monday began to administer the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration on Tuesday touted Tennessee’s equitable yet slower approach to the first round of distribution, maintaining that fairness should trump speed in the initial rollout.
Tennessee received a shipment of 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday but opted to put it in storage as a backup supply in case hospitals discover issues with future shipments. Hospitals will receive their first shipment of doses on Thursday and can then begin administering the vaccine to frontline health care workers.
The state’s initial shipment of fewer than 1,000 doses is a small fraction of the 56,000 doses that will go out to 74 hospitals around the state later this week.
“It’s our job to get that vaccine delivered to the people of this state,” Lee said in a call Tuesday with news editors. “We need to do so in an equitable way that is safe and that makes certain that the right people with the highest risk in the shortest amount of time can receive this vaccine, and that is our goal.”
While some doctors and other critics slammed Lee for not immediately distributing the first Pfizer vaccines to hospitals – as states elsewhere did Monday – his administration defended its decision-making by saying there was no fair way to decide which hospital would receive the early shipment.
“There’s absolutely no way to equitably choose which facility got the 975 doses,” said a person on the call who Lee’s office asked only to be identified as a senior administration official.
“I know 72 hours feels like a long time, but we are confident we are going to get vaccines in arms very quickly as soon as it arrives Thursday morning,” the official said. “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.”
The administration official stated that Tennessee’s vaccine distribution plan has been hailed by “multiple agencies” as being one of the most “equitable plans in the nation,” later naming CDC Director Robert Redfield and Harvard University among those who had praised the plan.
It wasn’t immediately clear what, exactly, Redfield or Harvard had said about why Tennessee’s distribution schedule was considered more equitable than plans in other states.
The 975 doses the state is holding in reserve amount to roughly enough to give one dose to frontline workers at a mid-sized hospital.
Dr. Greg James, the chief clinical officer for Ascension-Saint Thomas, said the hospital group will receive 975 doses at three of its largest Nashville-area facilities on Thursday, and these doses will cover a majority of their frontline workers.
As of Tuesday, Tennessee had the second-highest per-capita rate of new COVID-19 infections in the country over the past seven days, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That amounts to 113 new infections for every 100,000 residents.
Dr. James Parnell, president of the Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, wrote on social media Tuesday about hospitals in the state running out of beds.
“Please allow those 975 vaccines in your office in your Twitter photo op to be for front line workers,” Parnell wrote. “Even a single dose is more effective than a dose in a box.”
The senior administration official on the call Tuesday cited the strict guidelines surrounding handling of the Pfizer vaccine, explaining that an entire case would be considered spoiled and must be thrown out if specific protocols are not followed. The state will reserve the first shipment as a backup for that purpose.
The state’s remaining 40 hospitals that won’t receive initial vaccine shipments will be covered by shipments of a Moderna vaccine expected on Monday or Tuesday, following emergency federal approval scheduled for the end of the week. The Moderna vaccine requires fewer handling protocols, and Tennessee expects to receive an initial shipment of 115,000 doses.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, administered weeks apart, to optimize efficacy.
State officials are unsure when vaccines will arrive for the next phase, beyond initial doses to hospital workers.
The Lee administration official also spoke about changes in approaches to government-run testing around the state, explaining that health departments would need to shift some focus to administering vaccines, but that free testing would still be offered five days a week.
The official noted that nearly 85% of coronavirus testing in Tennessee already takes place at private clinics.
“Quite frankly, as a physician, that’s where testing needs to happen,” the official said of private medical facilities.
“For the foreseeable future, outside of the hospitals, the health departments are the only place you’re going to be able to get a vaccine for the next several weeks.”
The state will begin publishing on Tuesdays and Fridays an online dashboard report of the number of vaccines administered. The Department of Health also is adjusting its daily release time for coronavirus data, moving it from 2 p.m. Central to as late as 5 p.m.
Brett Kelman contributed.
Reach Natalie Allison at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
Want to read more stories like this? A subscription to one of our Tennessee publications gets you unlimited access to all the latest politics news, podcasts like Grand Divisions, plus newsletters, a personalized mobile experience and the ability to tap into stories, photos and videos from throughout the USA TODAY Network’s 261 daily sites.