Northeast Tennessee health departments not yet ready to expand vaccine access to other age groups

Local Coronavirus Coverage

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Following the CDC announcing new COVID-19 vaccine guidelines, local health departments in Northeast Tennessee say it will still take longer for them to expand vaccine access to new age groups.

Tennessee county health departments, including Sullivan County’s and those under the Northeast Regional Health Office, are currently vaccinating certain workers and people 75 and older.

On Tuesday, CDC leaders recommended that states expand COVID-19 vaccine access to speed up delivery to lower priority groups. New groups would include people age 65 and older, and those under 65 with underlying health conditions that put them at risk.

But local officials say it will still take time for health departments to expand vaccine access to these groups, especially as vaccine supply remains limited.

The Sullivan County Regional Health Department is currently administering around 875 vaccine doses a day at the Bristol Dragway site. These doses are going to people 75 and older and in Tennessee’s 1a1 and 1a2 groups.

Emergency Response Coordinator Mark Moody said it could take at least two weeks to open up vaccination for those 65 and older.

“That’s based upon vaccine availability, and still the need to vaccinate those that are 75 and older that are coming through the drive-through at Bristol Motor Speedway,” said Moody.

In the meantime, Moody said the health department is still considering expanding the age range they can vaccinate.

“We will probably be looking at doing the 70 and older either later this week or the first part of next week anyhow,” he said.

News Channel 11 requested interviews with the Northeast Regional Health Office on the new CDC guidelines and received statements on Tuesday. The office oversees health departments in several counties, including Washington, Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Unicoi, and Johnson.

Medical Director Dr. David Kirschke wrote:

 “…this is essentially the revised TDH COVID-19 vaccination plan, which added aged-based criteria.  We are currently working the CDC priority group of persons aged 75+, of which there are many.  The next groups in the TDH plan we will be vaccinating align with the CDC recommendation – persons aged 65+ and those with underlying medical condition that put them at higher risk.  Because vaccine supply has been limited, we cannot say when we will be able to move to the next phase in any county.  We are not currently holding back any vaccine for second dose and have been assured that the manufacturer will be delivering vaccine for second doses when they are due.  Our nurses and other staff working the vaccination clinics have done an excellent job of administering all the vaccine we are receiving to eligible persons (under the TDH plan) both safely and efficiently. 

Dr. David Kirschke

The Tennessee Department of Health told News Channel 11 that it will continue to prioritize people 75 and older. TDH did not give a specific time frame for when the state will expand access to other age groups.

Tennessee was among the first states to add age-based risk as a priority in our COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, and continues to prioritize vaccination of Tennesseans aged 75 and older as they are most at risk for serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. We are making rapid progress in vaccinating our highest-risk populations, and we’re excited to expand our vaccination efforts to other risk-based age groups as vaccine supplies increase.

Tennessee Department of Health

News Channel 11 also reached out to Ballad Health on these new CDC guidelines. Ballad officials indicated they’ll follow state guidelines and planned to give further updates on Wednesday.

Officials for the Virginia Department of Health did not respond to specific questions sent by News Channel 11 on Tuesday regarding the new CDC guidelines and vaccine access. VDH sent a statement from Deputy Commissioner of Population Health Dr. Laurie Forlano late Tuesday afternoon.

“Virginia’s Unified Command will consider these new federal recommendations and update its guidance as needed,” said Forlano.

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