Tennessee’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been delayed after the federal Operation Warp Speed failed to follow through on distribution promises.
“If I had more vaccines, we would give them out faster,” state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told reporters Friday afternoon. "But we just are still constrained by supply."
The state was set to receive a weekly allocation of 90,000 doses from Operation Warp Speed starting at the beginning of January, with that supply expected to grow week over week. But Piercey said the federal effort has so far fallen short of those distribution projections, while also leading state officials to believe — and rely on — that there was a reserve of vaccine for second doses that didn’t actually exist.
“That hurt us,” she said.
Piercey said she hopes to see supply increase by the start of February, at which point the state could grow its distribution operation to scale.
“Within a day or two, I could deliver a five-time multiple. And within a week or two, I could deliver a 10-time multiple,” she said. “It’s just the product I don’t have.”
In the meantime, the Tennessee Department of Health has made some adjustments to its rollout plan. Piercey on Friday told reporters that county jailers and corrections officers are now being vaccinated alongside health care workers and first responders in Phase 1a1. Those incarcerated in the same facilities were not.
Piercey said the decision was based on data indicating high risk of transmission in those environments and the state’s inability to replace those workers should they become infected.
“Part of the calculus here is staffing these prisons and jails,” she said. “There are very few alternatives to prison staffing, so when jailers become ill and cannot work, there is little ability to ramp up and backfill positions.”
With vaccines approved only for those aged 16 and older, the health department also has moved families of medically fragile children up on the vaccination plan in an effort to protect them from household transmission. Family members of vulnerable adults who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons may also be considered.
The vaccine window for Tennessee residents who are 65 and older has also been pushed back to March due to the limited supply.
As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 500,000 people have been vaccinated in the state. Almost every resident in long-term care facilities has received a first round of vaccine, according to state data.