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Tennessee eyes December COVID vaccine rollout, but local pharmacy says logistics unknown

Tennessee health leaders say the first COVID-19 vaccine shipment could come as early as December 15th. But a local pharmacy says there are still a lot of questions around how distribution will play out in our area.{ } (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Tennessee health leaders say the first COVID-19 vaccine shipment could come as early as December 15th. But Access Family Pharmacy in Hixson says there are still a lot of questions around how distribution will play out in our area.

Per Administrator Becky Barnes, the Hamilton County Health Department is working with the state to create flexible vaccination plans for various scenarios.

"Our local plan will largely revolve around the State’s priority order and will be implemented as soon as a vaccine is approved and available," said Barnes in a statement to NewsChannel 9.

The state's draft plan says a vaccine rollout will come in four phases and prioritize the most vulnerable.

According to Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey:

  • Phase 1 will prioritize health care workers, staff in long term care facilities, and first responders.
  • Phase 2 will prioritize essential workers.
  • Phase 3 would prioritize children, if a vaccine has been approved for them at that time, as well as certain at risk industries.
  • Phase 4 is when the vaccines will be open to the public.

"We will move through the phases just as quickly as our supply allows," said Piercey in a press conference Tuesday.

In late October, Commissioner Piercey said the public would need to go through doctors' offices and pharmacies to get the shots.

It's something Access Family Pharmacy in Hixson says they are preparing for.

"We’ve already started to do everything we can to make sure we’re ready and set up and on day one when the vaccines come in," said Jordan Morrison, a pharmacist with Access Family Pharmacy.

Morrison says the vaccine rollout will be challenging. The effort to distribute vaccines will be complicated by things like the short shelf life of vaccines, the fact that all of the current vaccine candidates require a patient to receive two doses, and that the actual serums need to be stored at extremely cold temperature.

"There are going to be a lot of logistical hurdles to have everyone effectively vaccinated for this," said Morrison.

According to Dr. Piercey, the Pfizer vaccine which is likely to be approved for emergency use first, requires storage at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. To address this distribution challenge the state says they plan on utilizing a "Thermal Shipper."

"What we plan to use is what Pfizer recommends and manufacturers themselves its called a thermal shipper. It comes in 975 vials per box and it sort of looks like a pizza box. It's flat and wide and that’s packed on dry ice. And that is what we intend to use so we can mobilize and distribute vaccines faster than having to go back and forth to a stationary freezer," said Piercey.

As local pharmacies wait for direction from authorities regarding distribution, Morrison says another complication is that there hasn't been a centralized point of contact for communication with distributors like pharmacies. He says that means questions about the cost of a vaccine and what the phased rollout will mean for distributors like pharmacies are big unknowns.

"There’s no communication on what that might look like. Communication on everything has been haphazard at best. It’ll be more than likely an issue of where we receive the vaccines and then a little bit of guidance of try to do healthcare workers and elderly first," said Morrison.

As Access Family Pharmacy says they wait on vaccine approval and more direction about distribution, they say they're doing what they can to prepare now. Morrison says they’ve finished the paperwork necessary to serve as a distributors. Morrison says once they get shipments, they've already spoken about changing their workflow and says the pharmacy is prepared to give out close to 500 vaccines a day.

While the state says the current vaccine distribution plan is just a draft and that there are likely to be many changes, during Tuesday's press conference Dr. Piercey did address a rough vaccine timeline.

According to Piercey, Tennessee will receive vaccines close to December 15th. Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout will likely be complete by the winter or early spring. The health commissioner estimates widespread vaccine availability for the general public will likely come in July or August.

"Even when we start vaccinating small numbers of folks. A hundred thousand, two hundred thousand. I know that doesn’t seem like a lot in the context of 6.8 million Tennesseans. That’s two hundred thousand people who are not transmitting the disease, and so we’re going to start to see some measurable improvement in our case trans when we get some vaccines in arms," said Piercey.