Now that limited supplies of the COVID-19 vaccine are available in Knox County, the distribution of the vaccine is subject to a slow and steady phased process outlined by the state of Tennessee.
Each Knoxville resident has two possible ways to be eligible for the vaccine, the first of which deals with phases that are based on the occupations or health conditions that put residents at the highest risk for COVID. Knox County is currently still in phases 1a1 and 1a2, which include frontline health care workers with direct patient exposure and dependent disabled adults.
The next phase that Knox County is expected to move into is 1b, which includes K-12 and child care staff, as well as other first responders — including administrative staff and dispatchers.
The second possible eligibility status for Knoxvillians is based on age. On Tuesday, Knox County announced that it would be the first metropolitan county in the state to open vaccine eligibility to those 70 years of age and older, down from 75 years or older.
In a media briefing Tuesday, Dr. Martha Buchanan, senior director of the Knox County Health Department, explained that the updated age eligibility requirement does not mean that Knox County is receiving more doses of vaccine from the state.
“Demand for this vaccine continues to greatly outpace supply,” Buchanan said. “To put it in perspective, there are approximately 52,000 people in Knox County who are 70 years or older. That’s about 20,000 more people than in the 75 or older group. This really expands the pool of people eligible for vaccine, and we’re happy about that but, again, vaccine supply isn’t going up with this change.”
Other metropolitan counties, such as Davidson and Shelby Counties, have not yet reduced the minimum age requirement to 70 years old. Dr. Buchanan explained that Knox County decided to change the age eligibility to reduce confusion for citizens from more rural bordering counties, where the age eligibility was reduced.
“People are going to different counties to get vaccinated, people are going where they can to get vaccinated, and we wanted to keep that consistent across county borders,” Buchanan said.
Because population size can vary drastically from county to county, some Tennessee counties have already moved into phase 1b.
Dr. Spencer Gregg, director of UT’s Student Health Center, says that the state is making “data-driven decisions” about how the vaccine should be allocated based on the size of at-risk populations in each county.
“What’s going on here in Knox County may not be what’s happening in Sevier County, may not be what happened in Blount County. It’s different for each county,” Gregg said. “Counties can move at different rates through the different phases. So when the state is allocating their vaccine to each community, to each county, those are the kinds of things that they take into account.”
According to data from the Health Department, Knox County has reported a total of 44,835 vaccinations, including first and second doses. Of the residents who have received vaccine, 31,870 have received a first dose and 12,905 have received both doses.
On Thursday, the Health Department announced that the number of residents who had received a dose of the vaccine had exceeded the 43,000 reported COVID cases in the county since the pandemic began.
“I continue to be grateful to the healthcare workers and to the members of this community for recognizing the importance of this vaccine,” said Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. “This is an incredible feat and we should be very proud.”
Many of the vaccinations that have been received so far were administered by hospitals, clinics and pharmacies directly to their employees, who are all eligible in phases 1a1 and 1a2. In addition to these healthcare workers, the Heath Department has been administering vaccines to many other residents who are eligible either because of disability or age.
Appointments to receive the vaccine can be made online or over the phone both at the Knox County Health Department and the UT Medical Center, though supply is short and appointments fill up quickly. The Health Department is currently working on an automated sign-up system that would create a waitlist.
The vaccine rollout process is complicated and slower than many would like, with shipments of vaccines dripping down from the state government to each county. The general public is not expected to be eligible for vaccination until March or April.
Dr. Gregg says that there has been frustration on UT’s campus over the exclusion of higher education staff and faculty from all of the vaccine phases, which will later include those 16 and older with high-risk medical conditions in phase 1c and infrastructure workers in phases 2a and 2b. It is not until phase 3 that campus workers in college dormitories will be eligible for the vaccine.
More detailed information on the phases can be found at the Health Department’s website.
“That state plan has been driven by the data that would suggest where the greatest transmission risks are and where the greatest vulnerability is,” Gregg said. “The state of Tennessee did not include higher education within that because the data transmission rates just did not equal what it was showing in the K-12s.”
The potential bad news is that, as of now, higher education staff, faculty and students who are not frontline healthcare workers or who do not have high-risk medical conditions will not be able to receive the vaccine until it is available to the general public.
The good news is that once the vaccine is available to the public, the UT community will likely be able to receive doses on campus at the Student Health Center.
Dr. Gregg says that the SHC has been approved as a “pandemic response provider” and will most likely be able to administer the vaccine directly to students and staff.
“We’ve been approved as a provider that, when the vaccine becomes more widely available, then we potentially could receive vaccine and begin to administer it directly from the Student Health Center,” Gregg said. “And obviously, if we did that, then in order to get as many people vaccinated as we possibly could, we would anticipate doing some vaccine events, kind of like what we do with the flu every year.”
This does not mean that the SHC is able to give out the vaccine whenever they receive it.
“It’s not like when we get the vaccine, we just start giving it to everybody,” Gregg said. “We still have to follow the state’s mandates, because the bottom line is, the vaccine is not ours even though we have it, it belongs to the state and they get to decide how it’s given out.”
The SHC vaccinated its staff in January, and the few staff members who exhibited mild symptoms were able to return to work within a day. Dr. Gregg says that students can expect to have symptoms when their younger immune systems react to the vaccine, but that symptoms are not a reason to avoid getting vaccinated.
“If you ever have the opportunity to get the vaccine, you don’t want to turn that opportunity down, because those opportunities are hard to come by, just like the vaccine is hard to come by,” Gregg said.
As more and more residents in Knoxville become eligible to get vaccinated, Dr. Buchanan says that the Health Department is looking for volunteers to help with vaccination events, which can last for a day and require a good deal of orchestration, from administering the vaccines to directing cars.
“Any big event, vaccination event, takes a lot of people to pull it off,” Buchanan said. “We’re looking for both clinical and non-clinical folks to help with the effort.”
Those interested in volunteering can sign up at the Tennessee Department of Health’s website here.