Tennessee hospitals are largely suspending their efforts to vaccinate patients in their systems against COVID-19. But they say it’s not because of a new state rule that they have to offer doses to the wider community.
Instead, they’re citing a new policy from the state that they say makes it impossible to keep vaccination clinics open. Regardless, the decision represents a dramatic shift in how Tennesseans will be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
First, the Tennessee Department of Health told hospitals in a letter dated Jan. 4 to get the vaccine out to their existing patients 75 and over. But then last week, the state changed course and said they have to offer the vaccine to the wider public, not just those that they have a previous relationship with.
At the same time, hospitals were warned that they’ll be getting far fewer doses because supplies from the federal government haven’t ramped up as expected.
“The majority of hospitals view it as part of their responsibility to the community to be a part of the vaccination effort and want to be,” says Dr. Wendy Long, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association. “But they also are just looking for some clear direction, and we thought we had it.”
Long is referring to hospitals’ prior role at the forefront of vaccine distribution. She says they would be happy to continue running vaccination sites — if they could get a steady supply of vaccine.
“The reason they’ve backed off is because of a lack of vaccine and not that they haven’t been willing to play by a new set of rules,” she says, specifically citing an announcement by Ballad Health to close down community vaccination sites in northeast Tennessee.
“Recently, the Tennessee Department of Health has made a policy decision to shift distribution away from hospitals, and thus, the supply of vaccines being provided to Ballad Health from the Tennessee Department of Health has been reduced substantially,” the health system said in a statement.
The state health department confirms it is prioritizing health departments who are providing vaccination “without regard to a patient’s insurance status or established relationship with a health system.”
Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, tells WPLN News it may be just as well, for now, that hospitals pitch in with the local health department sites, because vaccine supplies have not ramped up as expected. She also says that some Tennesseans may not feel comfortable stepping foot inside a hospital.
“There could be some substantial barriers for community members going to a hospital, if they think they’re going to get charged, or if they have an outstanding balance there,” she says.
Piercey says hospitals may take on a larger role once local health departments are receiving more vaccine than they can handle. But the new guidelines will remain in effect.
“Going forward,” she says, “if you want to continue being a site that gets vaccine, you’re going to have to step up for the community.”