Tennesseans age 65 and older, plus teachers and others in "Phase 1b" of the state's vaccination plan, will become eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines starting Monday, Feb. 22, Tennessee health officials announced Tuesday.
The Hamilton County Health Department will follow the state's eligibility changes effective Monday, as well, according to a news release from the department. That means all Southeast Tennessee counties will be in the same vaccination phase.
Phase 1b includes first responder operations personnel, staff members of kindergarten through 12th grade schools and child care facilities. Air traffic controllers and other large commercial and air cargo operations personnel were also added to Phase 1b on Tuesday, according to an updated version of the state's vaccine plan.
Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said that counties should continue to prioritize vaccination for people who are older and sicker even with the expanded eligibility. People who were eligible prior to Tuesday's changes, such as people age 70 and up and health care workers, can and should continue to seek COVID-19 vaccines, she said.
"There's always going to be this very precarious balance of how quickly we move through phases, but how long we wait to get a certain population vaccinated," Piercey said during a news briefing.
"We've seen some other states really hold progress in progression of those phases until one particular phase is complete or nearly complete," she said. "They're trying to get everybody in, and yet it's holding everybody else up. The other thing that's happening in the middle of that are, there are vaccines that are expiring. Remember, these don't have a very long shelf life."
The next vaccination phase, "Phase 1c," includes people with high risk health conditions, pregnant women and caregivers of children with high-risk conditions. A graphic illustration from the Tennessee Department of Health estimates that phase will open up in March or April.
Since more people live in Hamilton County than surrounding counties, the county has historically progressed through vaccine phases slower than its neighbors, causing frustration and prompting residents to seek vaccinations elsewhere.
Although Hamilton County is expanding eligibility, Piercey said that may not be the case in other metro counties, such as Knox or Shelby.
Southeast Tennessee counties outside of Hamilton do not require people eligible based on age group to live there in order to be vaccinated there, whereas those age 65 and up seeking vaccinations in Hamilton County must reside there.
In Hamilton County, people who are eligible for vaccination based on their job - health care workers, first responders and now teachers - must either live or work in Hamilton County to be vaccinated there.
The Tennessee Department of Health launched a new online scheduling platform for vaccine appointments at its 89 rural health departments across the state.
"Prior to yesterday, people went [online] and just merely signed up - entered their information and waited on someone to call them. With this new scheduling software, you can actually book your appointment directly," Piercey said. "You can choose the location that you want, and it will ask you if it's a first dose or a second dose, and then it will populate a list of dates and times that are available for booking."
Tennesseans can access the system at covid19.tn.gov and select their county to schedule an appointment. Those without internet access who need to make an appointment can call 866-442-5301.
People who were already registered for a COVID-19 vaccination prior to Tuesday's announcement do not need to re-enter their information in the new system.
The Hamilton County Health Department will continue to use its own online signup system at vaccine.hamiltontn.gov, which is different from the state's and available on its website.
Residents without internet access can call the Tennessee Department of Health or Hamilton County Health Department hotlines to register for vaccines. People in Hamilton County without internet access can call 423-209-5398 to schedule first dose appointments or 423-209-5399 for second dose appointments.
Pharmacies and other providers offering COVID-19 vaccines will have their own systems for vaccine appointments, separate from what health departments use.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.