Tennessee Faces COVID-19 Vaccine Delay While Leading In New Case Numbers

Dec 20, 2020
Originally published on December 20, 2020 10:23 pm

A snafu with Operation Warp Speed leaves at least 14 states short of the vaccine doses they were promised. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with WPLN's Blake Farmer about what that means in Tennessee.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now we're going to go to the troubled vaccine rollout here in the United States. There have been shortages of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in many states, even as the Moderna vaccine is being sent out. In Tennessee, hospitals were some of the last to receive the Pfizer doses. That's especially worrisome because at the moment, Tennessee is leading the nation with its rate of new cases. Health officials there are also defending a decision to hold back about a thousand doses in reserve. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville joins us now to explain. Good morning.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Tennessee arguably has a more urgent need for vaccine than anywhere. The state stands out right now, as I mentioned, on any COVID heat map. So why was it among the last states to get the vaccine?

FARMER: You know, state officials say it was - it's really just a federal decision. They were told to prepare for shipments early in the week. Hospitals expected Monday, but it wasn't until Thursday that doses showed up. And even then, it was later than planned. I was at an event with the governor to vaccinate the first employees at Vanderbilt University Medical Center - big hospital. But the vaccines didn't arrive until nearly two hours later than the event. So this really doesn't seem to be within their control. Pfizer says no shipments were delayed. The company was just sending out doses on a schedule they say was laid out by the feds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. But I guess the bigger question is that first shipment to Tennessee actually arrived on Monday, and Tennessee's Department of Health held onto it for reserves rather than using it right away, as almost every other state did. Why?

FARMER: You know, we've questioned them about this all week. Since the Pfizer vaccine is so sensitive and has to be kept so cold, the state plan to keep a shipment of about a thousand as backups if any were damaged in route to hospitals - the state's plan was to replace them. Dr. Lisa Piercey leads the state health agency.

LISA PIERCEY: You know, I think the key thing to remember here is that no two states are the same. Whereas our population and our geography is different, we've got to plan specific to Tennessee.

FARMER: Dr. Piercey also says they didn't want to waste a single dose, and since these shipments come in packages of nearly a thousand doses, they went to medical centers that could use every one. It probably wouldn't have been quite such a big deal if that shipment to the state health department didn't come four days before hospitals started receiving theirs. So you had this package of unused vaccines just sitting there in reserve most of the week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So is there really any justification for holding a vaccine in reserve at a time like this?

FARMER: You know, pandemic and vaccine experts who've been working on these sorts of plans their whole career say it just doesn't make a lot of sense to build up even a short-term stockpile. And as one frontline critical care doctor told me, if it was being saved for a rainy day, we've got a hurricane on our hands. His hospital didn't receive any Pfizer vaccine. So it doesn't offer full protection right away, but health workers on the front line just can't imagine why you'd wait a single day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So have any hospitals had to call on those reserves now that they have their first shipments?

FARMER: Well, no. The initial shipments all arrived like they were supposed to, intact. So late yesterday, state officials told me they're going to break up the box of a thousand they were holding onto, even though they previously said they weren't going to do this, and ship doses to at least one smaller hospital that didn't get any Pfizer doses.

And where they're going is worth mentioning. Nashville General Hospital should get these doses tomorrow. The city's public hospital has generally served more African American patients than the big health systems. It's also staffed by physicians from a neighboring historically Black medical school, Meharry Medical College. So people who work there had a lot of questions about why they were being left out - at least left out at first.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Blake Farmer. He covers health care at Nashville Public Radio. Thank you very much.

FARMER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.