Tennessee, Hamilton County expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to residents with chronic conditions

FILE- This Dec. 2, 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows vials of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)

Tennesseans in the "phase 1c" population of the state's COVID-19 vaccination plan - which includes anyone age 16 and up with a high-risk health condition - will be eligible to sign up and receive vaccines effective Monday, March 8.

That means over 1.1 million residents with conditions that range from obesity and high blood pressure to diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are newly eligible, according to estimates in the state vaccination plan. Other eligible conditions include chronic renal disease, moderate to severe asthma, dementia, liver disease, heart failure and stroke.

"Unfortunately, we have high rates of many of these chronic diseases that qualify you for this population, and so we expect quite a bit of demand," Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news briefing on Tuesday.

In addition, phase 1c includes individuals with weak immune systems, such as those receiving chemotherapy and people with HIV/AIDS.

Pregnant women and their household contacts, as well as household contacts of high-risk or medically fragile children, are also newly eligible.

The Hamilton County Health Department, which operates independently of the state, announced via news release that it will follow the department of health's lead in opening up eligibility to phase 1c on Monday.

"This is a massive population, and the reason we're going to go ahead and speed up and go to that phase is in anticipation for this large surplus of vaccine that we expect in the next two to three weeks," Piercey said.

(READ MORE: New teacher, age eligibility expected to strain Hamilton County's already limited COVID-19 vaccine supply)

Tennessee is expecting to get 54,000 doses of the newly-authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week on top of 192,000 combined doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine.

The supply of J&J will then taper off for two weeks but ramp back up throughout the month. Piercey said that the federal government has signaled that there could be a 30-40% increase in Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses in the coming weeks on top of whatever J&J sends.

"So by the end of the month, it is plausible that we could be getting 300,000-plus vaccines per week," she said, "That thrills me to think, because that's quite the opposite of what I was telling you just 30 days ago where we were struggling to get maybe even 80,000 a week in the state."

For those who don't fall into the phase 1c category, vaccines will still only be available for people age 65 and up.

Spokespeople for both the Tennessee Department of Health and the Hamilton County Health Department said that people included in phase 1c will not need to show proof of medical conditions in order to be vaccinated at a health department location. However, other providers offering vaccines may have different procedures for their sites.

Those seeking vaccines at the Hamilton County Health Department sites will still need to show proof that they either live or work in the county.

Piercey said that eligible people can go to the website vaccinefinder.org to find providers and locations in their area that are offering vaccines. She encouraged people to look beyond just local health departments and hospitals for appointments because new providers are continually being added.

Currently, about 700 sites in Tennessee are listed, with another 400 ready to be added once more vaccine supplies are available, Piercey said.

Providers listed on vaccinefinder.org are eligible to receive and administer vaccines but may not have vaccine supplies currently on hand. That means people may have to call around and figure out who's actually offering vaccines.

"I think that will be remedied in the coming week or two, but that's a federally managed software program that we really can't control. We just tell [the website] who in the state is eligible," Piercey said.

Vaccinefinder.org is separate from the Tennessee Department of Health website, which still manages vaccine appointments for health departments in non-metro counties across the state. Shelby County will also soon use the site for appointments at its health department sites, and other metro county health departments will potentially use the platform in the future.

Piercey also said that people who are having trouble finding appointments in their home county can use the site to find open slots at the state's rural health departments, which currently have about 228,000 open appointment slots through May.

As more and more sites begin offering vaccines, Piercey said that most will only be offering one product - either J&J, or Moderna or Pfizer.

That's because each is handled and stored differently, so it's more efficient and less likely that mishandling will occur if a provider is only dealing with one vaccine.

"We're trying not to mix and match different products at the same site. All of the rural county health departments have Pfizer and Moderna right now," she said. Adding that smaller, community providers who are currently approved to administer vaccines but are waiting on shipments to arrive will likely have some J&J by the end of the month.

The J&J vaccine will be easier to distribute because it only requires one dose and just needs regular refrigeration as opposed to an ultracold freezer. It's also well suited for large, mass vaccine sites due to its ease of transport.

"So it's going to be very well suited to get out to providers that don't have quite as much experience in handling vaccines, or maybe uncomfortable with some of the enhanced storage requirements," Piercey said. "It's also going to be a very good vaccine to vaccinate populations who are unlikely to come back for a second dose - think about urgent care centers or emergency rooms or college campuses - and anywhere where it might be difficult to get them to come back."

Planning is underway for several large mass vaccination events in mid-March, likely using the J&J product, Piercey said.

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