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Rural Tennessee hospitals don't expect COVID-19 vaccine until after Christmas

Officials at Tennova Healthcare in Cleveland tell us they do not expect the COVID-19 vaccine until after Christmas. (Image: Sabrina Maggiore WTVC)
Officials at Tennova Healthcare in Cleveland tell us they do not expect the COVID-19 vaccine until after Christmas. (Image: Sabrina Maggiore WTVC)
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While major hospitals in Tennessee are receiving doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and have begun vaccinating frontline workers, many hospitals in rural areas say they do not expect to see their first vaccine shipment until after Christmas.

That includes Tennova Healthcare in Cleveland, where ICU beds are at capacity, according to the New York Times.

Some health experts say vaccinating our rural healthcare workers will be critical in the fight against COVID-19.

As our rural areas continue to be hard hit by the pandemic, Jacy Warrell with the Rural Health Association of Tennessee says rising cases in rural areas, and an existing shortage of workers means rural healthcare staff are already strained.

“The vaccine is especially important to get to these rural areas, because they are short on staff and we need our frontline workers healthy to be able to care for the rest of us,” said Warrell.

According to the New York Times, in our area, Tennova Healthcare’s ICU beds are at capacity with zero beds available and 54 COVID patients.

At least two other rural healthcare systems in our area are still waiting on vaccines: Starr Regional in Athens, Tennessee and Hamilton Health Care System in Dalton, Georgia.

Warrell says some rural health systems have received vaccines and that despite the delays for some rural hospital systems in our area, distribution of the vaccine so far seems to be equitable. She says her hope is that rural counties will not be forgotten once vaccines are available to the general public.

"When this gets to the general public, we are concerned that our rural areas won't get the same level of distribution as the urban areas. And so we really want to see equal distribution when it comes to the general population the way we're seeing right now with our frontline staff," said Warrell.

The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) on Thursday announced that Tennessee's 95 county health departments should expect to receive the first shipments of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on December 21st. The TDH said in a statement that smaller hospitals that are not receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are expected to receive the Moderna vaccine the week of Dec. 28.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said during a press conference Thursday that vaccine distribution marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic in our state.

"I urge you to push so very hard over the next few weeks, because with the hope of this vaccine, this will be our last surge in Tennessee," said Piercey.

But both Piercey and Gov. Bill Lee pointed to a sobering reality as Tennessee continues to see cases surge, with rural areas hardest hit.

"We do stand here and celebrate a tremendous breakthrough in this pandemic, but there is a darkness before the dawn, that's happening right here in Tennessee, we have to recognize that," said Lee.

Gov. Bill Lee said he will get vaccinated when the rest of his age group becomes eligible. The governor issued a strong message on accountability:

"One thing that this vaccine will not solve, one thing that it will not cure is selfishness, or indifference to what's happening to our neighbors around us. This vaccine will not cure foolish decisions about how we gather. It won't cure an attitude or a refusal to wear a mask, and it won't cure the idea that I will take my chances and that that will not impact someone else's life. I think Tennesseans have a tremendous capacity, right now, to responsibly make decisions that will serve their neighbor in the process." said Gov. Lee.

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This is a developing story and will be updated as we learn more.

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