NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – As two companies racked the nation this week with encouraging news of coronavirus vaccines, Tennessee officials said the state will be ready to begin distribution of the vaccines as early as Dec. 1.
Both Gov. Bill Lee and Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey were clear in their remarks – widespread distribution of any COVID-19 vaccine probably won’t be available until the spring at the earliest.
“One of the most important aspects of our response is building a dependable infrastructure to distribute the approved COVID-19 vaccines as they become available in our state. Every day we’re one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine,” Lee said.
But in the event that the Federal Drug Administration approves either (or both) vaccines, Piercey said doses will be on the way to healthcare professionals and vulnerable populations first, as soon as 24 hours after FDA approval.
“We believe that the efforts over the last nine months have been comprehensive and will ensure a safe solution for Tennesseans and will not require any additional approval at the state level,” Piercey said.
She said both companies are expected to submit their findings to the FDA within a month. From there, Piercey said the FDA could take days or weeks to issue a decision. If the vaccines are approved, distribution can begin within 24 hours, Piercey said.
“Pfizer selected our state because of our plan, because of our ability to build a strong infrastructure and we’re thankful for that partnership and what it means to Tennessee,” Gov. Lee added. “Our state is ready to receive vaccines and distribute the – what will be initially limited supplies in December.”
Both companies reported efficacy rates of more than 90%, which Piercey said is welcome news.
“If this indeed is accurate, this far exceeds what we had initially expected and is an incredibly encouraging advancement toward widespread herd immunity, which is what we need to get to the other side of this pandemic,” Piercey said.
The vaccination plan details three phases of distribution, putting healthcare workers and first responders first in line, followed by outpatient healthcare workers and high-risk groups such as older adults in congregate care.
Child-care staff, those at “moderate” risk and critical infrastructure employees make up the second phase of distribution before availability expands to all populations.
News of potential COVID-19 vaccines came as record COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rock the state and nation. Piercey said October set records in the reported COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide, with November on track to break that record.
Lee predicted a “difficult few weeks” ahead, pleading with Tennesseans to take the pandemic into consideration when making holiday plans.
He said his family canceled their own Thanksgiving family gathering for the first time in his life and encouraged Tennesseans to reconsider large gatherings.
“Until we have a widespread distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination available, holidays and routine choices that we make this year should look different,” Lee said.
While he asked Tennesseans to reconsider holiday plans, he pushed back on any mandates, including a statewide mask mandate or business restrictions.
He said that the rise in COVID-19 cases comes from private gatherings, and that regulations on businesses won’t affect the surge in cases.
Piercey reported grim statistics – surging cases, surging hospitalizations and an increasing positivity rate. The latter, she said, draws concern because it indicates fewer people are receiving COVID-19 tests.
Positivity rates have climbed to double-digits, Piercey said, with the 7-day average nearing 14% as of Tuesday.
“In order to ensure appropriate identification and control of this virus, we want to have this number in the 5% or less range,” she said, theorizing the drop in tests could mean carriers are asymptomatic, or simply choose not to get tested.
“We cannot control the spread of this virus if we don’t know who has it.”
Lee’s office announced extended testing hours bookending the Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 23 and 30. A list of testing locations and their hours is available on tn.gov.
Officials said Tennesseans who get a test on Monday will get their results within 48 hours.
You can watch Governor Lee’s entire news briefing on our WJHL Facebook page below.