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"We need your help" | Tennessee working to quickly vaccinate people 70+ against COVID-19 as supply slowly builds

TDH said it received more than 100,000 vaccines this week, and is anticipating a bigger bump in the number it receives weekly by the end of the month.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is seeing more rises in the number of COVID-19 vaccines it receives weekly, and leaders are anticipating week-over-week shipments to begin snowballing soon once more vaccines waiting for emergency approval enter the rotation.

Right now,  the Tennessee Department of Health said its main focus is on getting more people 70 and up their first dose of the vaccine, calling on people in the state to spread the word to loved ones and provide assistance setting up appointments and getting them to vaccine clinics.

You can find more information on how to sign up for the vaccine wait list in most counties at this link. The exception in East Tennessee is Knox County, which will be launching a new COVID-19 vaccine wait-list website on Wednesday.

TDH commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said getting this age group vaccinated will be critical in preventing a substantial portion of serious COVID-19 illnesses, as this age group is 70% more likely to die and 40% more likely to be hospitalized if they catch the virus compared to those younger than them.

So far, Piercey said 270,000 Tennesseans 70 and up -- roughly a third of that age group's population in the state -- have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it a "big win." Of all the vaccines given, 40% have been distributed to that age group. Still, about half a million remain -- and Piercey said many live alone, need help navigating online and phone appointment systems, and need help getting to and from their appointments.

“Be a good volunteer. Reach out to family, friends, church members, and others who may be 70-plus to help them out and to mitigate the risk to that group," Piercey said.

Vaccine supplies continue to come in at increasing rates to the state, but not nearly enough to shorten the timeline in getting most people vaccinated before the year's end. This week Tennessee received 101,000 doses -- up from 93,000 from last week. Piecey said the state is expecting another 5,000 doses in its weekly allocation.

With only two approved vaccine manufacturers, supply is still constrained. Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine is set to be the third in the supply rotation, which is currently awaiting emergency use authorization from the FDA. Once approved, it is expected to roll out in early March.

Tennessee is also partnering with Walmart pharmacies to provide greater vaccine access to the most amount of people across the state, saying it has more stores across the many rural counties compared to other chains. It said this partnership does not mean the other pharmacy chains won't receive access to vaccine, just that the initial priority will be with Walmart. TDH said once vaccines roll out to stores soon, people should check with Walmart at its website for availability and how to schedule an appointment.

Tennessee's current vaccination plan for the two-dose vaccines that are currently available is one that focuses on allocating both doses to people to provide full protection, rather than focusing on allocating just the first doses to reach more people initially with limited protection.

This strategy has put Tennessee near the top in the U.S. for having the most percentage of people in the state fully protected. Piercey said the state is eighth or ninth among the others.

However, the downside is that the limited supply of first doses has people "vaccine shopping" around in different counties -- particularly people who may qualify for the vaccine in a neighboring county but not their own.

Piercey said, while people are technically allowed to do this, they are asking them to wait and strongly discouraging them from crossing into other counties because vaccine allocation is based on that county's population and puts a strain on local efforts.

"This is a zero-sum game," she said. "The responsible and loving thing to do is to let seniors get vaccinated first."

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