MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Tennessee launched vaccine distribution, officials had high hopes.
“We anticipate having 200,000 folks vaccinated by the end of this calendar year,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey on December 21.
But in the end, it took more than a week into the new year for Tennessee to reach that number. Piercey reported Tennessee had reached 215,000 vaccinations in a call with Gov. Bill Lee Friday.
“We need to identify where the hold-up is,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Steve Threlkeld.
Science has done its job but now the focus must turn to logistics, Threlkeld said. And there’s a problem.
“Somewhere along the line there is a break in the distribution pattern. We need to do better,” he said.
But he’s baffled as to where that problem starts.
According to the data from the Centers for Disease Control, Tennessee has received about 450,000 doses of the vaccine, but has given out less than half: 196,000 according to the CDC, whose data seems to lag, and 215,000 according to the Tennessee vaccination dashboard.
WREG wanted to know: where’s the rest and why hasn’t it gotten into the arms of Tennesseans?
Counties don’t have the vaccines; this chart, provided by the state, shows they all report either limited or exhausted supply.
“The very fact that journalists and doctors and everyone else don’t know the answer to that is a problem,” Threlkeld said.
WREG then took the question to the state Department of Health. A spokesperson wrote in an email, “Tennessee had to allocate a large portion of their doses to Walgreens and CVS up front.” The designation is part of the Long-Term Care Facility Federal Pharmacy Partnership, of which Tennessee chooses to take part.
State data shows Tennessee allocated about 195,000 doses to CVS and Walgreens, however, according to that state data, CVS and Walgreens have administered less than 10,000 shots.
Experts have told other outlets CVS and Walgreens have faced paperwork and logistical delays.
WREG contacted both companies asking for an explanation and if they plan to ramp up distribution.
The CVS spokesperson didn’t directly answer, instead pointing to a chart showing they have given more than 3,000 vaccines at skilled nursing facilities, but they’ve been limited beyond that because the state says they can’t give vaccines at assisted living and other long-term care facilities until January 13.
A Walgreens corporate spokesperson did not respond with any information specific to Tennessee, instead sending the following statement:
“Walgreens is working with the CDC and federal and state governments to accelerate the administration of COVID-19 vaccines. As part of the federal government’s vaccine distribution plans, states are responsible for prioritizing populations for initial COVID-19 vaccine administration. We are working closely with state governments to expand vaccine administration as they finalize their prioritization and distribution plans for additional vulnerable populations. With our nationwide footprint, extensive vaccine experience, trusted community presence and pharmacist expertise, we are well-positioned to administer COVID-19 vaccines and help our nation emerge from this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee officials are focusing on their successes: the doses they distributed have gotten out. In fact, according to CDC data analyzed by WREG, Tennessee ranks twelfth in vaccination rates among states, territories and the District of Columbia.
But for Threlkeld, it’s not nearly fast enough.
“The fact we’re near the top is nice but when the very top isn’t good at all, we still got a long way to go in this,” he said.
Of all states, West Virginia ranks highest in vaccine distribution rates and it is the only one that opted out of the federal pharmacy partnership.
WREG contacted Gov. Bill Lee’s office to find out if he’s had any communication with the pharmacies responsible for distributing nearly half of the state’s vaccine supply.
In an email response, spokesperson Gillum Ferguson said the state’s data has a lag and should be updated tomorrow.
“CVS has vaccinated about 60 percent of all of their assigned facilities, and, although we are still awaiting Walgreens’ independent dashboard, we believe they have done a similar, if not higher, percentage of their facilities. Both CVS and Walgreens have publicly committed to having all long-term care facilities completed before January 25,” Ferguson said.
Data released Tuesday showed the pharmacies have now vaccinated about 15,000 people, meaning they’ve given out seven percent of the 190,000 doses allocated by the state.
In Tuesday’s task force briefing, Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter acknowledged the federal program has had scheduling challenges. She said she didn’t know if CVS and Walgreens had given any vaccinations in Shelby County at this point.
Haushalter said she’s hoping the pharmaceutical companies will start joining the task force’s vaccine subcommittee meetings every week.
“That’ll help us have a better understanding in Shelby county, one how many doses the pharmacies have and what barriers they might be facing in getting that vaccine out and how we in the joint task force can assist them,” Haushalter said.
She said once the federal program gets going, it will be helpful to them since vaccinating in group home settings uses up a lot of county resources.