Tenn. officials readying COVID-19 vaccine distribution network as cases continue to increase

Updated: Nov. 18, 2020 at 6:54 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Wednesday the Shelby County Health Department said another round of business closures are looking increasingly likely as COVID-19 cases skyrocket.

But amid that bad news, there’s word Tennessee may have some doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the state by December.

Pfizer said Wednesday its vaccine is showing 95% efficacy, and Tennessee is one of four states picked for initial distribution tests. That comes as public health officials are more concerned about the significant transmission of the virus in Shelby County.

“We have reached the place where we will need to implement additional measures for containment purposes,” said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department Director.

Haushalter told county commissioners Wednesday that significant case growth may force temporary, targeted business closures, as laid out in a health department document released in August. Restrictions on restaurants, athletic events and a curfew are on the table, per the document.

“We do anticipate some vaccine coming our way. But really we don’t know the exact date,” she said.

Haushalter said the health department is also awaiting more details about a COVID-19 vaccine. State officials said Tuesday they are readying infrastructure for vaccine distribution by Dec. 1, but they don’t anticipate widespread availability for Tennesseans until spring of 2021.

“This initially will not be widely available. The limited supply initially will require prioritization. Our top priority initially is healthcare workers and first responders and specifically those in the high-risk categories in those two groups,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, Commissioner of the Tennessee Dept of Health.

A clinical trial of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine has been underway in Memphis since September. Longtime Memphian Susan Adler Thorp is a participant. She said she checks in weekly for symptom management and is undergoing routine blood tests. The trial commitment is two years, and it’s a blind trial.

“To this day I do not know whether I got the placebo or I got the vaccine. If I am to judge by how I felt the day after the booster, I would guess I got the vaccine but maybe not,” she said. “But whichever, I’m satisfied that I participated in the trial.”

Dr. Steve Threlkeld said both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates show incredible promise at ending the pandemic. What’s still undetermined is how long these vaccines will provide immunity from COVID-19.

“We hope this will be long-lasting, and we will be able to see that but we don’t know for sure,” he said. “They’re going to look downstream at how long the immunity lasts.”

With respect to those business restrictions in Shelby County, Director Haushalter said she is meeting with municipal mayors on Thursday. An announcement could come as soon as Friday.

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