Health experts: Northeast Tennessee ready for COVID-19 vaccine expansion | WJHL

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Officials with the State of Tennessee announced Monday that anyone over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine no later than April 5.

Logistically, local health departments and private healthcare providers like Ballad Health say they are ready to make the jump to vaccinating all adults. From extending vaccination hours to offering mass vaccine distribution clinics, the race to vaccinate us all, is on.

Most of the state is currently in phase 2, and anyone over the age of 55 is currently eligible for the vaccine.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still the most widely available vaccines, but Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey announced that starting next week, the state will begin receiving more shipments of the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Piercey also said that for now, supply seems to be out-pacing demand, but with eligibility expanding, that may change.

“I suspect that within the next 24 to 48 hours, you’re going to see a substantive number of counties, go to all adults,” she said Monday.

Piercey said this change might not come easy, but it will happen, and it will happen soon.

“Acknowledging the fact that this type of move is going to create somewhat of a log jam in some counties where demand is already high, that’s part of the reason we’re pretty adamant that counties move at their own pace, with the goal of all adults eligible no later than April 5, understanding that some counties are still going to have tons of availability and other counties are not. And so, I don’t envision a scenario where we’ll ever pull back, or where we will say, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to have to scale back because demands too high,’ I think the way to address that is to push vaccine out to more providers in those communities,” Piercey added.

She acknowledged that the transition might not be as easy as expected.

“It might be a little messy, or the next week or two, but what our priority is, is getting the most shots out to the most people as quickly as possible, and that might, that might create some more demand, but in the long run it’s going to be the fastest way to get the most Tennesseans vaccinated,” Piercey said.

In Sullivan County, Health Department Director Dr. Stephen May said the death rate appears to have gone down somewhat and the county is averaging about 35 cases a day.

The county has a positivity rate of 12.8%, which is about double what is seen in the rest of the state, which is around 6.9% for the last five days, May said.

“Vaccine supply remains the issue. We’ve been holding mass vaccination campaigns. What this would really help in getting a lot more supply, is being able to pull in our partners that can help us, so we’re now getting our pharmacies online, we need vaccine that we can give to our private providers, we need vaccine in our urgent care clinics, in our emergency rooms,” he said.

With the emergence of the variant from the United Kingdom, May said the stakes are even higher now.

“We still have a long way to go to reach that 70, 80% number. However, I do think we are seeing some effect with control of our hospitalizations and death. This is a foot race. This is a foot race of getting the vaccine out versus the change in the variants that we see with increased transmissibility and with increased risk of death. So we’re in the race for people’s lives, and that’s to get vaccine into arms so the variants cannot get ahead of us,” he said.

As part of the no-phasing system, some teenagers would be eligible for the vaccine. May said the second dose of the vaccine may impact younger patients differently, but the benefits outweigh the risks.

“The vaccine has been extensively studied in age 16 and up so we know the risks, side-effect profile for those age groups. The only caveat I do warn about is in younger people – and I’m talking less than 50 – the second dose tends to cause more reactogenicity, so a few more side-effects with low-grade fever, headache, kind of feeling bad for 24-48 hours, and we would expect to see the same thing in our younger people who are receiving the vaccine, so we do know that it does cause those side-effects, particularly with the second dose, but we also know that the more that we get the bulk of the population immunized, the greater the chance we’ve got of decreasing the spread of disease, and if you have anyone in those special groups, so a higher BMI than 30, any type of chronic underlying disease, we really want to get those people vaccinated first rattle out of the box,” he explained.

May said there is hope yet.

“The light is at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not at the end of the tunnel. And we still need, particularly to practice masking and distancing and prevent the spread of these variants, till we have an opportunity to get the shots in the arms,” he said.

Locally, both private and public healthcare providers feel they can meet this goal.

“I think logistically we’ll be okay so we are certainly working with health departments, they have appointments, we have appointments, you know, if we open up next week or whatever we open up to the 16th, you know, there will be appointments available whether it’s next day or the next week we’re going to have those appointments, we’ve got excellent workflow we’ve been going through this for a few weeks now and so we’ve got our flows down or staffing down so we really can. We’re confident we can meet the needs of our community,” Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said.

State and local health officials told News Channel 11 that the only way the vaccine distribution system would be fully effective, would be for private health partners, like Ballad Health, to help with the distribution by getting vaccines in doctor’s offices, urgent care facilities, emergency room, etc.

Swift said that if you can get the vaccine, you should.

“I feel very confident in this vaccine and all three of them that are on market. There’s been millions of doses given those, those reactions are very few and far between, and, you’ll always have an anaphylactic reaction to some vaccine at some point, that’s just the nature of the human population so overall thing is very good. You know, I encourage people if they have specific questions reach out to their healthcare provider and get those questions answered. Don’t look to social media for your answers. Make sure you’re talking to a credible health care provider a health care source, and really understand the research that went into the vaccine as well as the trials and the studies that have been done and we,” she said.

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