You've probably heard the stories just as we have. Perhaps you have your own story.
John, a Tennessee resident, went across the border to Georgia to get his coronavirus vaccines because of his former status as a rescue squad member in that state. Nancy, a Hamilton County resident, went to Sequatchie County to get hers. Brian, a 20-something graduate student was able to get his vaccination by virtue of his school placement in the behavioral health field. Phyllis, a Chattanooga resident over 75, was turned away at an early vaccination drive-through but learned the family members of those administering the shots were invited to come down later that day to get their injections.
We have no independent knowledge of precisely how the vaccine, from at least two manufacturers, is distributed through the federal government to the states and to individual counties. Is it based on the number of people in each county or the number of frontline workers in each county? Does it take into account the percentage of elderly in each county? In Hamilton County, for instance, 17.9% of its residents — as of July 1, 2019 — are 65 or over. In Brentwood, Tennessee, it's 13.5%.
What about risk factors? Would a 45-year-old man with diabetes be more at risk than a 55-year-old man with heart disease? Would the 19-year-old special needs patient need the vaccines more than the 7-year-old cancer patient?
Since health officials know the virus is more susceptible among Black and Hispanic people than white people, should they be at the head of the line? But what if their population skews younger and they live in a county with more elderly people? And if they are more susceptible, is that because of genetics or lifestyle or neither or both? And how can we determine that in order to be equitable?
Frankly, we're glad officials in the Trump and now Biden presidential administrations didn't — at least to date — declare they would take a year — probably a lot longer — to create the most fair distribution policy possible. In order to do that, they would need to study which individuals with which risk factors, no matter the age, would be most vulnerable. It would be an impossible task.
So federal and state health officials left it up to counties to determine how their supply of vaccines will be distributed. Some, like Hamilton County, have kept their minimum age at 70. Some have lowered it to 65. Some included teachers among those to receive vaccinations. Some have not.
Counties, in attempting to distribute their supplies, are in a no-win situation. They must consider all of the above factors but somehow project how many people will be inoculation holdouts.
And we know this: If we saved the vaccine until every person who wanted to be inoculated in the initial group of frontline workers was inoculated, we'd be waiting months or years. After all, some don't want the vaccine. Some don't trust it. And some would rather just wait.
So, for most people, it comes down to this. If they want a vaccination and there is a way for them to get one, they will get it. Is that greedy? Is that fair? Is that racist? Is that taking advantage of the system? Is that contributing to inequality?
We pose those questions because a petition by the Hamilton County Education Association suggested the county move into its next phase of vaccinations — 1b — that includes teachers. Since that phase also includes everyone ages 65 and up, the desire for inoculations likely will equal or overwhelm the supply.
Fortunately, on Tuesday, it was announced that eligibility — as of Monday, Feb. 22 — will be opened to individuals in those two categories. In addition to residents 65 and over and teachers of students from child care age through high school, school staff, school bus drivers and other first responders not in previous phases also will be eligible.
Our feeling is that if we are asking teachers to return to face-to-face teaching, which has taken place, they should be protected. After all, not only are they dealing with 10, 20, 30 or more students per class, but other faculty members and administrative staff as well. And each of those individuals comes from environments with even more people.
Yet, even with those newly eligible, we know there is no such thing as a perfectly equitable system.
But we're also aware that Americans tired of nearly a year of abnormality will pursue the vaccine where they can find it. And who can blame them?