Still, the pace remains slow and officials warn that full vaccination in the state could stretch into 2022.
| Nashville Tennessean
Tennessee teachers are next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Tennessee Health Department announced Wednesday, but the specifics of how and when educators can get the vaccine remain unclear.
K-12 teachers and child care workers have been bumped up to Phase 1b, right behind frontline health care workers, in the state’s vaccine distribution plan even as Tennessee struggles to administer as many vaccines as it pledged to by the end of the year.
Educators were previously in the second phase of the state’s four-phase plan, behind health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff and the elderly. Now educators have leapfrogged adults with two or more high-risk conditions and other critical infrastructure workers.
“When you talk about risk to society and the economy, we know how critically important schools are to the functioning of our society and our economy — not only keeping kids in schools so they can learn and be educated but also keeping parents at work,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said during a news briefing Wednesday.
Making teachers a priority
Some lawmakers — including Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, chair of the state House Education Committee — have pressured Gov. Bill Lee in recent weeks to move teachers up on the vaccination plan in hopes that widespread vaccination will quicken the reopening of schools across the state.
Many closed early ahead of the winter holidays due to the uptick in COVID cases across the state.
Educators have also called for more protections in lieu of the vaccination. In November, the Tennessee Education Association called on Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate for all school staff and students and put in place stricter guidance for when schools should close as COVID-19 cases surged across the state.
The largest statewide organization representing teachers, TEA also argued that data indicates in-person instruction increases infection risk and that Tennessee educators are more likely to become ill at a greater rate than the state’s general population.
TEA President Beth Brown previously told The Tennessean she supported the vaccine to be available earlier for teachers who would like access to it.
Whether teachers will go and get the vaccine remains an open question.
A survey conducted by the Professional Educators of Tennessee in the fall found that only about 33% of Tennessee educators said they would voluntarily get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Lee has also indicated that the state does not plan to mandate school staff or students receive the vaccine in order to attend school in-person.
He has previously characterized vaccines as a choice, and school-aged children aren’t a priority until the third phase of the state’s plan.
Piercey said Wednesday whether teachers are vaccinated should not keep schools from reopening.
“In no stretch of the imagination do we ever link teacher vaccination to schools being open. …We staunchly advocate for schools being open prior to teachers being vaccinated,” Piercey said. “We have almost nine, 10 months of data that shows that schools are not a primary or even a significant place of a transmission. We do not advocate overall for holding back on schools reopening until teachers are vaccinated.”
How teachers can get the vaccine
Neither the Tennessee Department of Health or the governor’s office provided information regarding how educators can receive the vaccine Wednesday.
In a news release, the Tennessee Health Department said “individuals qualifying for vaccination under Phases 1a1 and 1a2 may be offered the vaccine by their employer, through their local health department or through a partnering hospital.”
Some school districts have already received information regarding vaccine distribution and had distributed information to employees as of Wednesday but for district officials, the announcement was news.
Some educators took to social media, asking when they might get such information and whether teachers who are teaching in-person will be prioritized.
Sean Braisted, the spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said the district will continue to work with the Metro Public Health department and Meharry Medical College on when and how the vaccine will be made available to teachers.
“We appreciate the State prioritizing teachers in the vaccination plan,” Braisted said in an email. “We will provide further information to staff and the public as those details become available.”
in Sumner County, the school district is already planning to administer the vaccines through the district’s employee health clinic, spokesperson Jeremy Johnson said in an email.
On Wednesday, the district “took the proactive step of asking our teachers to let us know if they would like to receive the vaccine so that we know how many doses to request from the state when the time comes,” he said.
The Tennessee Department of Education also did not have further details to provide Wednesday.
“As the decision was just announced, (we) do not have many details to share at this time,” a department spokesperson said. “We will work with the Tennessee Department of Health on their dissemination plans, and do expect to provide districts with information in the coming days.”
The health department did not immediately respond to a request for further information Wednesday.
Vaccine distribution across the state
In addition to moving teachers ahead in the line, the state announced Wednesday a simultaneous effort to begin vaccinating Tennesseans by age. The state is allowing those 75 and older to begin receiving the vaccine, followed by others in 10-year age brackets.
That means some residents who might have fallen into a different category could begin receiving the vaccines sooner if they are older.
Some counties have even already started vaccinating people aged 75 and older, Piercey said Wednesday.
“There have been a lot of iterations of the plan. The biggest change (Wednesday) is teachers coming up behind health care workers,” Piercey said. “The concurrent aged-based criteria helps all Tennesseans get vaccinated regardless of their profession.”
Counties across the state have been vaccinating health care workers since Tennessee administered its first vaccines on Dec. 16. The first doses of the vaccine were rolled out in hospital systems, with health departments also receiving shipments.
But a delay of more than 20,000 vaccines before Christmas shuttered some health departments’ vaccine rollout over the holiday weekend and has impacted the state’s goal to vaccinate 200,000 Tennesseans by New Year’s Eve.
As of Tuesday, Tennessee had administered 79,282 vaccinations, according to the state, including about 49,000 in the last week. At that pace, it could take years to fully vaccinate Tennesseans. The state on Wednesday said that number has increased to about 90,000.
Immunization Program Medical Director Michelle Fiscus said under the “absolute worst-case scenario,” where the current rate of shipments continues as is, Tennessee won’t be able to finish vaccinating all of its residents until May 2022.
Health officials say at least 70% of the population must be completely vaccinated in order for restrictions like masks and social distancing to be eased. Fiscus said the state wouldn’t hit that marker until August 2021 with its current supply.
But Piercey and Fiscus both were optimistic Pfizer and Moderna would increase the production of their two-dose vaccines in the coming months and also hope another vaccine from an additional provider will be approved in the coming months.
Reporter Adam Tamburin contributed to this report.
Want to read more stories like this? A subscription to one of our Tennessee publications gets you unlimited access to all the latest news and the ability to tap into stories, photos and videos from throughout the USA TODAY Network’s 261 daily sites.
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.