Tennessee continuing to lag in vaccine throughput as J&J comes online, Phase 1C opens

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Tennessee ranks near the bottom among the states for the percentage of distributed vaccines that it has actually administered.

Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia both exceeding state averages for vaccination rates

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Northeast Tennessee counties have been running through their COVID vaccines supplies on a weekly basis, but the statewide picture is much different.

“We are using all of our first dose vaccine in each county every weekly cycle,” Northeast Regional Health Office (NERHO) Medical Director David Kirschke said last week. NERHO covers Washington, Carter, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi counties. Sullivan County has its own metro health department.

That’s not the case with a number of Tennessee counties, though. The state doesn’t keep a report on how many vaccines counties have left over at the end of a weekly cycle.

But Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) spokesman Bill Christian told News Channel 11 recently there are counties that are not running out of vaccine each week. He said the count and the counties varies from week to week.

If NERHO could run through even more vaccine than it’s getting, though, it’s not likely to get any from those counties.

“Equity is an important consideration in vaccine allocation,” Christian said last month. “Rather than moving vaccines from one community to another, throughput can be addressed by onboarding more providers in that community.”

Northeast Tennessee has seen about one in eight people fully vaccinated. The statewide figure is just one in 12.

Since then, though, Tennessee has remained at or near the bottom nationally in terms of vaccine “throughput” according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Throughput is measured most effectively by figuring what percentage of vaccines a state has administered of the total vaccines distributed to it.

Monday’s data show Tennessee ranking 45th among the states in that category at 70.9 percent. The U.S. average was 77.6 percent, and neighboring Virginia ranked fifth at 84.9 percent.

Little had changed in terms of Tennessee’s ranking since News Channel 11 first asked about the issue nearly a month ago.

Asked recently about whether TDH was considering reallocating currently stored vaccine from one jurisdiction to another, Christian said no.

Asked whether TDH might temporarily change weekly allocations to allow counties that were struggling to throughput their vaccines to catch up — which would likely result in more supply being sent to places like Northeast Tennessee — Christian said that also wasn’t being considered.

“We are increasing our clinical staff by hiring moonlighting EMS and nurses and soliciting clinical volunteers,” Christian said Feb. 28 — at the end of a week in which vaccine issues in both Shelby and Rutherford counties made the news.

So for now, Northeast Tennessee counties are likely to continue getting their share and no more. That share is based mostly on population, but with counties that rank highly in a national “social vulnerability index” getting slightly more than those that do not.

So far, areas that hadn’t been performing well are improving at a mixed rate. Montgomery and Rutherford counties, with more than half a million people between them, remain at just 8.6 and 10.5 percent respectively for first doses received.

Tennessee’s rate is 15.2 percent and Northeast Tennessee’s is 17.7 percent.

Shelby County, though, has begun picking up the pace after a highly publicized incident involving wasted vaccines there the week of Feb. 22 and is now at 13.7 percent with at least one dose.

According to the CDC, though, Tennessee ranks 47th overall for the percentage of its population fully vaccinated — at 8.3 percent. Virginia’s rate of 10.1 percent puts it at 15th among the states.

As of Sunday, Washington, Unicoi and Sullivan counties in Northeast Tennessee ranked first, second and fourth in the percentage of the population that was fully vaccinated.

Overall, the seven-county region was at 12.3 percent fully vaccinated — significantly above the statewide figure of 8.3 percent.

On the other side of the state line, Southwest Virginia is also outperforming the Commonwealth as a whole — but Virginia is in the top half of the states for percentage of people fully vaccinated.

Southwest Virginia’s fully vaccinated percentage is 12.6, and Washington County, Va. is in the top three in the state for the percentage of population that’s reached that milestone — 17.1 percent.

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