Blake Farmer

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The teachers at New Hope Academy in Franklin, Tenn., were chatting the other day. The private Christian school has met in person throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic — requiring masks and trying to keep kids apart, to the degree it is possible with young children. And Nicole Grayson, who teaches fourth grade, says they realized something peculiar.

"We don't know anybody that has gotten the flu," she says. "I don't know of a student that has gotten strep throat."

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Tennessee will not be banning employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Ultimately, the interests of “corporate freedom” are winning out against “individual liberty,” as one lawmaker put it.

On Wednesday, Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, spiked his own legislation (HB1147), which would have made it illegal in Tennessee to require employees to take the COVID vaccine.

Already under federal law, no employer — even hospitals — can force workers to get the vaccine because it’s only been given “Emergency Use Authorization” by the Food and Drug Administration. But the vaccines will likely receive full approval in the next few years. At that point, employers could make vaccination a requirement to keep a job.

As the speed of COVID vaccinations picks up, so do the reports of doses going to waste. And it's more than just a handful at the end of the day because of a few appointment cancellations. Health officials are trying to address the problems that lead to waste, but without slowing down the roll out of the lifesaving vaccinations.

Montgomery County Health Department

Tennessee counties are saying goodbye to Signup Genius. Local health departments have been relying on the free scheduling website to coordinate COVID-19 vaccination appointments. But the state has now launched a customized online scheduling tool.

Cathy Montgomery leads the Williamson County Health Department, which is training on the system now and making the switch March 15. Nurses will now be armed with iPads accessing the patient information as they administered doses, she says.

“The system has a lot of tremendous features that we hope will certainly improve our processes and make things go a little bit faster for us,” Montgomery said during an online forum Friday.

Bobby Watts, via Twitter

Not one, but two health care leaders in Nashville have been named to the Biden administration’s equity task force to oversee the COVID response. One is the leader of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, based in Nashville.

Bobby Watts says it’s an honor to have the ear of the White House. But he also expects he’ll need to speak up for those who are homeless, since in some states like Colorado they’ve been pushed down the list during vaccine distribution, as other, more influential groups take priority.

“That is a big concern, and we are in a race against the clock with the [coronavirus] variants, which have higher transmissibility,” Watts says.

Stephen Jerkins | WPLN

Whether someone is in the country legally will have no bearing on whether they get a COVID-19 vaccine in Tennessee, says the state’s health commissioner.  

Dr. Lisa Piercey says people also don’t have to show what county they live in, or for that matter, that they’re a resident of Tennessee. 

“We are not denying vaccine to anyone who shows up at our site and is in phase,” she tells WPLN News. “This is a federal resource, and if you’re in this country, then you get a vaccine.”

There was hesitation among some undocumented immigrants about COVID testing for fear identifying information would be shared with law enforcement – and in some cases it was. Piercey says she expects similar hesitancy with vaccinations, so she says local health departments will work with trusted community groups to vouch for the process or even administer the shots.

Stephen Jerkins | WPLN

Nearly every state in the country is now seeing sustained improvement in their pandemic metrics. Tennessee, which was leading the nation in new cases in December, has seen an even more dramatic drop than most.

Epidemiologists say there’s not a single explanation for the rapid gains. It’s unclear how much is related to vaccinations. Researcher Melissa McPheeters of Vanderbilt University Medical Center says that at least in Tennessee, it’s likely that people were scared back into social distancing and masking after the state’s post-Thanksgiving surge.

“We know that people pay attention to those trends, and they do modify their behavior in response,” she says. “So that’s great, and I hope that tells us that people know what to do when they need to do it.”

Ballad Health

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.


Tennessee Dept. of Correction

The country’s largest hospital chain is getting into the manufacturing business. Nashville-based HCA says it’s entered into a new joint venture with a health care products manufacturer to make masks, gloves and gowns in North Carolina.

HCA is responding to the global shortage of personal protective equipment that rose to crisis levels early in the pandemic and have persisted. Most of the country’s PPE came from China, which had its own COVID-related needs.

“The recent surge in demand for PPE due to the pandemic has underscored how dependent we have been on supplies from overseas and the importance of working to diversify our supply chain,” chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Perlin says in a statement.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Tennessee lawmakers rarely debate consequential legislation in the first few days of a session. But the General Assembly is forgoing precedent to alter how the state’s Medicaid program receives federal funding, and in the process will be altering roughly a third of the state budget before the Biden administration takes over.

Passage is a given. The same Republican majority told TennCare to seek this so-called “block grant” for Medicaid, which has been a dream of conservatives. Now that dream is nearly reality.

But in less than a week, the country will have a Democrat in the White House, leading a party that has opposed block grants for Medicaid and argued that they only lead to cutting benefits and beneficiaries from programs.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Tennessee ended 2020 with more COVID deaths than some of the worst early predictions. And those same models now show fatalities in the state could double by April 1.

The state ended the year reporting nearly 7,000 confirmed and probable fatalities from COVID-19. That number will increase since there’s usually at least a two-week lag for reporting COVID deaths.

More than a third of the deaths were reported in the month of December, meaning the pandemic is still accelerating. Roughly 2,400 deaths were reported last month, making it the most deadly month of the pandemic — by far.

Office of Gov. Bill Lee

Gov. Bill Lee is calling a special session of the legislature to address urgent education issues related to the pandemic.

In an announcement released Tuesday, Lee says that the state expects proficiency in math and English test scores to drop by more than half. In a special session, he says the legislature will equip teachers and school districts with “resources and supports” needed to combat learning loss.

It’s unclear what that will mean in practical terms, though the governor’s office says the bills will address funding, teacher and district accountability for test scores, literacy and teacher pay.

Blake Farmer | WPLN

Some COVID-19 vaccines are already in use, but the clinical trials roll on. In fact, they’re still recruiting participants, and they’re particularly focused on signing up people of color.

At first, speed was the top priority. Now diversity is, says Dr. Stephan Sharp, who leads a vaccine trial site at Clinical Research Associates in Nashville. He recently held a Facebook event with Kurdish young professionals.

“We want folks from all different ethnic backgrounds. because it’s possible that the vaccine works better in one group or lesser in another group, and the only way to find out is to test it,” he said.

A snafu with Operation Warp Speed leaves at least 14 states short of the vaccine doses they were promised. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with WPLN's Blake Farmer about what that means in Tennessee.

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