KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — The Knox County Health Department received its first shipment Tuesday morning of the Moderna vaccine, prompting an upbeat and encouraging message from its director to the community.
Several "priority group" members including first responders got the department's first shots Tuesday afternoon.
"This is an exciting event for us here at the Health Department," Dr. Martha Buchanan told reporters Tuesday in a briefing. "It's certainly a moment in history and one that represents hope and light at the end of the tunnel."
Buchanan fielded questions from the media for the first time since emerging from isolation after testing positive earlier this month for COVID-19.
She said she'd had a relatively mild case of the highly contagious virus, which is believed to have killed more than 270 Knox Countians at an ever-accelerating pace since March. Just this month, at least 76 residents have died from virus-related complications.
KCHD will use the 2,200 doses from Moderna to begin vaccinating priority groups, which would include the department's own virus testing team. The vaccine requires two doses for each recipient spread across about 28 days.
The general population can't expect to get vaccines until well into 2021. The priority right now is to vaccinate health care and front-line workers as well as the elderly.
The vaccine has proven to be an effective tool in preventing the virus from developing, Buchanan said. Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey estimated some 200,000 Tennesseans would be vaccinated by the end of 2020.
Tennessee hospitals are among groups right now handing out shots to personnel.
Starting Monday, pharmacies will begin going into long-term care centers to vaccinate elderly residents and staff.
KCHD's first batch won't be enough to cover all those in need in this initial phase, Buchanan said. But it's a start.
On Monday night, the Knox County Commission narrowly agreed on an initial vote to reduce the power and authority of the Knox County Board of Health, which has been imposing measures on the public and businesses to try to contain the virus spread.
That could thrust Buchanan into the role of being the sole authority when it comes to taking virus-fighting steps in Knox County.
That would put the doctor squarely at odds with some county commissioners who have fought social gathering and business measures.
Buchanan said she's willing to continue making the tough calls. She reminded reporters she's supported every step taken by the Board of Health.
What's most important is focusing on the things the public can do to stop the spread of the virus, she said.
She blamed the surge in Tennessee cases in recent weeks and months to inconsistent messaging about steps such as mask-wearing that can curtail how people get COVID-19. In some counties there are mask mandates, she said. In others, there aren't and there's no effort to enforce such a move.
There's also been some spread due to travel and social gatherings, she said.