Tennessee pauses teacher vaccinations for COVID as older adults get priority

A health care worker wearing a mask and a face shield uses a syringe to measure out a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from a vial.
About 40% of Tennessee’s 95 counties had moved into the vaccination priority group that includes teachers, but Friday’s announcement from Gov. Bill Lee changes that. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Tennessee teachers, school staff, and child care workers must wait for COVID-19 vaccinations until after people age 70 and older receive their shots, state officials said Friday.

The new directive pauses the inoculations of educators, which already had begun in many rural counties. As of Thursday evening, more than half of counties in the state had run out of vaccine doses.

“The state is prioritizing individuals that are contributing to hospitalizations and deaths in Tennessee,” said Elizabeth Hart, a spokeswoman for the state health department. “Counties will provide vaccines to 75+ and then 70+ prior to moving on to teachers and school staff.”

“We hope to add teachers back to the list by early February, if not sooner,” Hart added.

The department’s explanation came after Gov. Bill Lee told reporters earlier Friday that Tennessee had revised its distribution plan again. More than half of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in the state are people older than 70, he said.

The change could affect how soon schools go back to classrooms full-time. All but the largest district in Tennessee, Shelby County Schools, has offered an option for in-person learning at some point during the school year. Many have reverted to all online learning temporarily as possible exposure to the coronavirus keeps many staff at home.

Tennessee’s decision to pause educator vaccinations comes just days after health officials in Colorado took similar action. In Michigan, however, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that teachers can begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine starting next week.

This is the second time Tennessee teachers have been moved on the priority list of when to receive the vaccine. They initially were expected to get their shots in the spring. But, on Dec. 30, the state moved educators up in line, after health care workers, first responders, and staff members and residents of long-term care facilities. Vaccinations for Tennessee’s oldest citizens would have happened alongside teachers.

Gov. Bill Lee (TN.gov)

With Friday’s change, educators took a step backward, but still should be able to get their shots by the end of March. 

The decision comes as questions emerged about whether the state equitably distributed vaccinations to educators, since those in large cities and healthcare hubs were further down on the list to receive them. State health leaders have repeatedly said they were committed to an equitable distribution of the vaccines. 

Last week, teachers in numerous rural counties began lining up to get their shots, but it’s not clear how many teachers actually received it. Before the change, teachers in 40% of Tennessee’s 95 counties were eligible.

In Haywood County in West Tennessee, 16 educators got their shots before the local health department’s supply ran out, said Superintendent Joey Hassell. About half of the district’s 400 employees expressed interest in getting the vaccine. 

Hassell had started making a schedule to cover classrooms for teachers who wanted to get their shots during the school day. That’s now on hold. 

“The vaccine availability is just not there right now,” he said. 

When teachers were first moved up on the priority list, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray said he was pleased. 

In an interview Thursday, he said, “For us to return back to brick and mortar, I think it’s very essential for our employees, especially our teachers, to receive the vaccine as soon as they can.” 

Ray plans to reopen classrooms in early February, but could delay the plan if the number of new COVID-19 cases does not drop. 

Jeanetta Glass, a Shelby County Schools teacher, said she wouldn’t mind waiting to get her shot if she could avoid early confusion and long lines like the ones she saw in Memphis over the weekend. 

“Vaccinating teachers early sounds good, but we’re a fraction of the population,” she said in response to Chalkbeat’s reader survey.

To shorten wait times, the state also announced plans to launch an online appointment platform to bring more order and certainty to the massive task of vaccinating Tennesseans, which has been managed by local health departments thus far.

“This is the effort to minimize the number of people who wait in line for hours and hours, and then sometimes could be turned away due to exhausted inventory,” said Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey.

Piercey said at least 215,000 Tennesseans have been vaccinated so far, which is about 3% of the state’s population, with some counties exceeding the 7% mark.

“Our goal is to get it in an arm as soon as it gets to the state,” she said of the vaccines.

This story has been updated.

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