New guidance from Tennessee officials says hospitals cannot limit vaccines to existing patients

By: - January 22, 2021 3:06 pm
(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

(Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Tennessee hospitals may no longer restrict their still-limited supply of vaccine only to established patients under new guidance issued by the Tennessee Department of Health, Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner, said Friday in a briefing with reporters.

“For hospitals to continue vaccinating on a forward going basis we have asked them … to do a few things,” Dr. Piercey said. “We want you to set up a site in the community that’s easily accessible particularly by those who rely on public transportation.”

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)
Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health (Photo: Tennessee Department of Health)

“We want you to vaccinate everybody, not just your patients. We want you to be a community site regardless of if they’ve ever been there before, regardless if they have even have a payor source. We are focusing on getting this out to as many people in as equitable a distribution methodology as possible.”

In Nashville, all five hospitals that received initial government-funded vaccine supplies chose to make them available only to their existing patients, once the initial phase of healthcare worker vaccines were done, Tennessee Lookout reported last week.

The practice has been criticized by healthcare advocates who argued that patients who have existing relationships with hospitals are less likely to be lower income, people of color or lack insurance.  Besides hospitals, there are two sites operated by the Nashville Public Health department offering limited supplies to elderly residents. A separate vaccination efforts in nursing homes and other institutions is being done through pharmacies.

Brian Haile, CEO of Neighborhood Health — which operates a group of health clinics in Middle Tennessee that provide primary care to 30,000 low-income residents — said he “rejoiced” when he learned of the new policy on Thursday night and has reached out to local hospitals discuss how they might get Neighborhood Health patients vaccinated.

“Since they (the five hospitals) have administered about two thirds of the doses in Nashville to date, their ability until now to restrict the use of vaccine exclusively for their already-established patients (who are disproportionately white and higher income) is deeply troubling,” Haile said in an email.

“This entire episode – and the stark racial and ethnic disparities in its wake – underscore the need for Tennessee to immediately begin distribution of COVID-19 vaccine to community health centers embedded in underserved neighborhoods,” Haile said.

Neighborhood Health is among the clinics across Tennessee that have registered with state health officials to offer vaccines, but have not yet received vaccines to distribute. Vaccine supplies remain extremely limited across the nation, but in other states community clinics have received supplies.

Clinics that treat low-income patients in 32 other states have already been approved to provide vaccines, an analysis of federal COVID-19 vaccination data by the organization found, Haile said.

While supplies remain severely limited, the vaccine is now available to individuals 75 and older in Nashville. In Nashville, residents who do not live in long term care facilities may only get their vaccines from the public health department or a local hospital. In March, the vaccines will begin to be offered to those 65 and older, Dr. Piercey said Friday.


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.