JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Like many states, Tennessee is trying to achieve maximum equity in its COVID vaccine distribution.
One likely result is that regions more effective at administering the doses they have — including Northeast Tennessee — are left clamoring for more while other areas struggle to get their supply into people’s arms.
Data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show a couple things.
First, a wide discrepancy exists in percentage of first doses administered across Tennessee counties, per TDH.
Second, the CDC shows that Tennessee ranks in the bottom five among states both in vaccine throughput — vaccines administered as a percentage of vaccines distributed — and in the percentage of population who’ve received the first dose.
Tennessee was among the national leaders in first doses administered in early January. Buy the beginning of February, the state had slipped into the lower half according to CDC data.
Thursday, the CDC’s website showed Tennessee ranked 47th in the percent of people who had received a first dose — ahead of only Utah, Georgia and Rhode Island.
TDH spokesman Bill Christian told News Channel 11 in an emailed statement that some counties in the state don’t administer all the vaccines they’ve been provided each week — even when Saturday clinics are added.
Christian said TDH has made a point of keeping those doses in the counties to which they’ve been allocated. Allocation follows a formula, with 85 percent of federal supply doled out according to population and the remainder following a formula that takes counties’ “covid vulnerability index” into account.
The poorer, sicker or otherwise more vulnerable a county is, the greater share of that remaining amount it gets. As of late last week, Christian said no consideration was being made to change that strategy.
“Equity is an important consideration in vaccine allocation,” Christian said.
“Rather than moving vaccines from one community to another, throughput can be addressed by onboarding more providers in that community. Additionally, TDH is working to maximize throughput at its health department vaccination sites.”
Asked whether any “trigger point” might prompt TDH to consider reallocating vaccines from areas with throughput issues to those with efficient throughput, high demand and the resources to push through more vaccines, Christian referred News Channel 11 to the quote above.
While lack of supply is one potential explanation, the CDC website includes data on the percentage of vaccines administered as a fraction of those that have been distributed to each state.
There again, Tennessee lags. As of Thursday morning, the site showed the Volunteer State ranking 46th nationally — with 71.2 percent of doses it had received having made it into people’s arms.
That figure was 85.1 percent in Virginia, which ranked the commonwealth ninth nationally. The national average was 77.7 percent.
Virginia also ranks highly in the percentage of population with at least one COVID vaccine dose — 13th as of Thursday morning.
While other factors certainly are at play, and most states are working hard to keep distribution equitable, the data seem to point to a continued struggle in some parts of Tennessee to get vaccines administered.
That’s not the case in Northeast Tennessee. Like Southwest Virginia, it has outpaced the state in the percentage of vaccines administered from the time data began to be shared.
Whether the region will maintain efficient throughput as supply increases remains to be seen. Judging by the state’s last communication with News Channel 11 on this matter, though, such a supply increase isn’t likely to come via a reallocation of vaccines from counties with low percentages of shots administered.
Those include some of the state’s most populous counties. While Washington County ranks second with 17.1 percent of its population having a first dose and Sullivan ranks sixth at 15.3 percent, Montgomery County — population 208,997 — is dead last (95th) at 5.7 percent.
Rutherford County, with 332,278 people, is 93rd at 6.6 percent and Shelby County, which has 937,166 people, is 87th at 8.0 percent.
Meanwhile, Unicoi, Washington and Sullivan counties in Northeast Tennessee rank first, second and sixth in first doses administered.
Whether this region could throughput more vaccines were some excess to be reallocated remains an open question.
But with additional federal supply expected soon, the regions struggling with throughput — and those kind of discrepancies within states do exist nationwide — could be sitting on even more unused doses if the state’s efforts to aid them don’t fully succeed.
Vaccine hesitancy could also be a factor, as could logistical difficulties in some areas. Numerous reports have highlighted black Americans and other minorities receiving lower levels of vaccination than the share of the population they represent.
As of Thursday, black Tennesseans accounted for 7.0 percent of vaccine recipients, with whites at 71 percent.
Tennessee is 78 percent white and 17 percent black according to census bureau statistics. Shelby County is 52 percent black and 40 percent white.
Rutherford County, on the other hand, nearly mirrors the state averages and has an even lower percentage of people with at least one vaccine dose.