Hospitals in Tennessee no longer have to open COVID vaccinations to the general public. The state has lifted a ban on excluding non-patients, in part because it needs more help using all its vaccine.
The Tennessee Department of Health sent a letter to hospitals on Monday informing them of the reversal.
“This is more how health care is delivered normally and will fit really nicely in the normal practice patterns,” says Dr. Wendy Long, head of the Tennessee Hospital Association. “I think this is a logical progression.”
When COVID vaccine was in short supply, hospitals were chided for only extending vaccine invitations to patients already in their systems. In January, the state said hospitals would stop receiving a vaccine supply unless they opened to anyone in the community.
Most found a way to satisfy the requirements, though rarely by opening vaccination centers open to anyone in the general public. Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for instance, offered to vaccinate public school teachers. Maury Regional Medical Center assisted the local health department in drive-thru vaccinations.
But roughly 40 hospitals in Tennessee— mostly smaller systems — opted out of receiving more doses rather than offering shots more broadly, says Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner.
Now, she says the state needs their help moving doses, particularly Pfizer’s vaccine. The state has been getting more than expected. It has the most stringent cold storage requirements, and hospitals tend to have the proper refrigeration requirements.
“Actually, I fear that in the next 30 days, supply will exceed demand,” she says of the reversal. “It’s my constant job to think of, ‘How can I get more people eligible and more people moving through?’ ”
The state had been concerned hospitals were creating inequities by vaccinating patients only. Louisiana had similar fears and even threatened financial penalties.
But now with more doses available — as many as 300,000 per week in Tennessee by the end of this month — Piercey says she hopes hospitals concentrating on their own patients will free up health departments.
“That, by default, takes them out of the health department system,” she says. “And the health department system is designed to serve those without access.”