This story was updated on Monday, March 22, 2021, at 5:31 p.m. with additional information.
All Tennessee residents age 16 and older will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine no later than April 5, according to an announcement Monday from the Tennessee Department of Health.
The move comes as areas of Tennessee experience low uptake of the vaccine, particularly in rural areas of West Tennessee and upper Northeast Tennessee. Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said hesitancy is hurting Tennessee's national standing in administering doses and led state leaders to create the April 5 deadline.
"Particularly in rural areas, in areas where there are communities of color, low-income workers and more rural conservatives, uptake is lower," Piercey said during a Monday afternoon news conference.
Piercey said Tennessee's vaccination program has also been hurt by the winter storms in February and the state's focus on ensuring those most at risk for severe coronavirus infections had access to the shots first.
Tennessee has the third-lowest vaccination rate per capita in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alabama and Georgia are the only two states with a lower vaccination rate per 100,000 residents.
Hamilton County is outpacing its neighbors with 12.6% of the population fully vaccinated, according to the state department of health. However, last week before expanding eligibility, the county health department issued a call for people to sign up for the hundreds of first-dose appointments the next day that were unfilled.
Piercey said the state expects 311,000 vaccine doses to arrive this week, which includes first and second doses, and then more than 350,000 doses next week. Vaccines are allocated to counties based on population, and counties struggling to use all of their vaccine supplies may have their supplies moved to a different area, Piercey said.
The increasing size of weekly shipments is easing supply issues that hindered the early weeks of the vaccination campaign and shifting pressure toward fighting vaccine hesitancy or misinformation.
State leaders emphasized that counties can make their own decisions about what phases and age groups to make eligible but the deadline for eligibility for all state residents will be in two weeks.
The county health departments run by the Tennessee Department of Health do not require people to live in that county to receive a vaccine there. However, people must live or work in Hamilton County to receive a dose through the Hamilton County Health Department.
Tennesseans age 55 and older and those in Phase 2 of the state's COVID-19 Vaccination Plan — which includes workers in commercial agriculture and food production, social services, corrections, public transit, telecommunications, utilities and public transit or infrastructure — are eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations effective immediately.
The Hamilton County Health Department announced eligibility expansion for these same groups last week, meaning that all Tennessee counties in the Chattanooga region are now in the same vaccination phase.
The exact timing of the next phase of vaccine eligibility expansion will come before April 5 and include those in Phase 3 of the state's COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. It will run concurrently with age-based eligibility, according to a news release from the department of health.
Phase 3 includes residents and staff members of group living facilities, including college dormitories, group homes and shelters and those in the corrections system.
Phase 3 also includes grocery store workers who were not eligible for vaccination based on previous age or risk-based categories. To help ensure vaccines are available to these populations, direct allocations of vaccines will be made to these facilities, according to the new release.
Gov. Bill Lee said several Tennessee counties may open eligibility to all residents age 16 and older in the upcoming days.
"The federal government has asked us to make sure every adult can receive access by May 1, and Tennessee will beat that deadline," Lee said in a video posted on social media.
Eligible residents can visit VaccineFinder.org to find providers that are offering vaccines, including which brand each is offering.
County health departments across Tennessee now have appointments available that can be booked online at COVID19.tn.gov.
Those who need help scheduling a COVID-19 vaccination appointment with their local health department may call the state vaccine support line at 866-442-5301.
Hamilton County residents can visit vaccine.hamiltontn.gov if they'd like to make their appointment with the health department. Those who do not have access to the internet can call the health department to make an appointment over the phone:
> First-dose appointments: 423-209-5398
> Second-dose appointments: 423-209-5399
> Spanish appointment line: 423-209-5384
All three call center lines are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the Hamilton County Health Department.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.