With COVID-19 surging across the state, the legislature should concentrate on controlling the virus and disseminating a vaccine when it convenes in January, House Minority Leader Karen Camper says.

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration already has a draft plan on the Department of Health website, and the governor, who will not require residents to get vaccinations, is set to hold a vaccine briefing Thursday, when the first round is to be given. 

Tennessee has totaled 464,624 cases, up 10,300 in one day, with 5,541 deaths, an increase of 79 from the previous day. Tennesseans have taken more than 5 million tests.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee House Minority Leader Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Amid those rising numbers, Camper contends state lawmakers should be involved in the process, including helping set the schedule for certain groups to receive vaccinations, then focusing on “mass distribution” and gaining “people’s trust” in taking vaccinations.

The federal Centers for Disease Control set guidelines for first responders, healthcare providers and long-term nursing home residents to receive the first round of vaccinations. The state is going by that plan as it anticipates receiving 56,550 doses of Pfizer vaccine in the first distribution.

“But then at this moment, the current president still pushed it to the states to handle, and have given some leeway in there for the states for how they handle it,” Camper said.

For instance, contracting and several other parts of the process are being put in states’ hands, she said.

In contrast, Republican leaders appear satisfied with letting the state Department of Health, Gov. Lee’s Unified Command Group and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency handle the vaccine program.

“The Department of Health and Unified Command have submitted their plan for distribution in conjunction with input from experts within our medical communities. Speaker (Cameron) Sexton agrees with this planned rollout for vaccine distribution,” said Doug Kufner, spokesperson for Sexton.

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally pointed out President Donald Trump should be commended for putting Operation Warp Speed into effect and bringing the vaccine to Tennessee faster than people expected.

“The Department of Health and the Unified Command devised an excellent plan for distribution of the vaccine with input from legislative leadership and communicated that plan to the entire General Assembly. Lt. Gov. McNally is comfortable with the current level of collaboration and expects it to continue. As always, the Legislature will execute its traditional oversight role over executive departments, when and if it is needed,” Adam Kleinheider said.

Tennessee is to receive another 56,550 doses of Pfizer vaccine in the second distribution for another round of vaccinations to the top priority group. 

Moderna is to deliver about 100,000 doses to county health departments and hospitals that don’t receive a first-round distribution to vaccinate the priority population.

GOP legislative leaders, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, say they are comfortable with the state’s vaccination plan.

The state’s vaccination plan will be updated based on guidance from the federal government and if new vaccines are approved, according to Gillum Ferguson, spokesperson for Gov. Lee.

“Any approved vaccine will be in limited supply and the state must follow priority tiers in accordance with the Tennessee Department of Health’s approved vaccine distribution plan. The administration has no plans to mandate the vaccine and encourages every Tennessean to consult with their physician about whether the vaccine is right for them when it becomes widely available,” Ferguson said in an email.

Those to receive the shot in the first phase are hospital and emergency department staff with direct exposure to patients and potentially infectious materials, home care staff, COVID-19 mass testing site staff, student health providers, staff and residents of long-term care facilities and first responders with direct public exposure. Within that group, people over 65 with illnesses such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, obesity, cardiac disease, sickle cell disease and diabetes will have first priority.

Tennesseans set to receive vaccinations in the second round of phase one include other healthcare workers with direct exposure to patients, such as primary care providers and staff, outpatient specialty providers and staff, pharmacists and staff, patient transporters and outpatient therapists.

Adults with two or more high-risk conditions would receive vaccinations next, including those with cancer, chronic renal disease, COPD and similar disorders, solid organ transplant, obesity, heart failure and other heart problems, sickle cell illnesses, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, immunocompromised conditions, dementia and liver disease, with first priority going to those over 65.

The next phase would catch critical infrastructure workers, K-12 teachers, school staff and childcare workers, all ages with co-morbid and underlying health conditions, healthy individuals over 65, congregate care residents and staff and correction residents and staff.

The final two phases would take in young adults, children, workers in industries and entities important to society and with higher risk of exposure, such as those working in universities, entertainment and goods-producing industries and anyone not already vaccinated.