Tennessee COVID-19 vaccine plan changes: Ages 75 and up now eligible, teachers move ahead in line

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Health Department workers dispense doses of the COVID-19 vaccine near the Hubert Fry Center at the Tennessee Riverpark on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Hamilton County Health Department continued distributing vaccines following the State of Tennessee’≥ response plan at their Vaccination Drive-Thru Point of Dispensing.

All Tennesseans age 75 and older are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in most Southeast Tennessee counties, including Hamilton, based on changes to the state's vaccination plan released Wednesday.

K-12 school staff and child care workers also moved up in the vaccine priority line - ahead of adults with multiple high-risk conditions and other critical infrastructure workers - as did adults age 65 and older. However, those groups will not be eligible until the next vaccination phase, which is predicted to start around February or March, according to a graphic illustration of the new plan from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Tennessee health commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news conference that the changes are focused on reducing risks to the health care system, society and economy while protecting those most vulnerable to serious and deadly COVID-19 infection.

With each new phase, individuals in a lower 10-year age bracket will become eligible for vaccination regardless of their job or if they have underlying health conditions.

photo A graphic from the Tennessee Department of Health illustrates the updated vaccine allocation plan released Dec. 30, 2020.

"Our plan is based on Tennessee data. We know that over half of Tennesseans who are hospitalized [with COVID-19] are 65 plus, and 80% of our deaths are 65 plus," Piercey said, adding that the rationale behind the new priority for teachers and child care workers is based on societal risk.

"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," she said.

Several other groups, including people over age 18 who cannot live independently due to health conditions or disability, are now eligible for vaccination. The following list contains all the currently eligible groups in Hamilton County based on a news release from the Hamilton County Health Department:

* All health care workers with direct exposure to patients or potentially infectious materials (including hospital staff, outpatient providers, pharmacy staff, patient transport, therapists, janitors, dental providers, behavioral health providers, laboratory staff working with COVID-19 specimens, funeral/mortuary workers)

* Home health care staff

* COVID-19 mass testing site staff

* Student health providers

* Staff and residents of long-term-care facilities

* First responders

* Individuals over age 18 who cannot live independently due to health conditions or disability

* Anyone 75 years or older (must be Hamilton County resident)

Counties may progress through allocation phases at different times based on their vaccine supply and demand. Coffee County was the only Southeast Tennessee county not yet vaccinating people age 75 and older, according to the department of health website on Wednesday.

Tennesseans that qualify for vaccination may be vaccinated through their employer or at a local health department. Staff members and residents of long-term-care facilities will be given vaccinations through a partnership between pharmacies and the state.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga health care workers among first Tennesseans vaccinated against COVID-19)

photo Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey speaks at a news concerning the state's response to the coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee, left, has asked all schools in Tennessee to close by the end of the week due to coronavirus spreading across the state. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Eligible people seeking vaccination in the Southeast Tennessee counties outside of Hamilton County should call their local health department to make an appointment.

The Hamilton County Health Department's COVID-19 vaccination site at 4301 Amnicola Highway will be open and giving the Pfizer vaccine to eligible people - including anyone 75 years and up who lives or works in the county - Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those wishing to be vaccinated must bring proof of eligibility, such as a work ID and/or documentation of residency.

"We realize information is changing quickly about the vaccine distribution," Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said in the news release. "We ask for the continued patience of our residents as our staff works through the challenges this massive undertaking brings."

To date, the Hamilton County Health Department has received 3,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. As of Wednesday, the department had administered a total of 3,086 doses.

The health department's efforts are in addition to ongoing vaccination campaigns at local hospitals. Chattanooga's three major health systems - CHI Memorial, Parkridge and Erlanger - reported having vaccinated nearly 8,350 staff members combined as of Wednesday and have at least 2,900 more doses on hand, with plans to administer them in the near future.

Changes to the overarching state plan come despite Tennessee being behind its vaccination goal after a snowstorm last week delayed shipments of the Moderna vaccine.

Tennessee's vaccine plan has undergone several revisions since it was first introduced in the fall, and officials said more changes are likely to come based on demand and as vaccine supplies ramp up.

Many more people will need to be vaccinated before the pandemic is controlled, so wearing face masks, social distancing and getting tested when exposed or sick remain critical, officials said.

Tennessee's COVID-19 Vaccination Plan is available online.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.