On May 4, President Joe Biden set a goal of getting at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose into the arms of 70% of adults by July 4.
To date, at least a dozen states — including California, the nation’s most populous — have already reached that mark, with a half-dozen more on pace to get there by the Independence Day deadline. Nationwide, about 63% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine thus far.
Tennessee, however, is unlikely to join them.
According to data from the Tennessee Department of Health, fewer than half of adult Tennesseans — roughly 49% — have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The New York Times, which is tracking states’ vaccination progress, estimates it would take Tennessee at least six months at its current vaccination rate to vaccinate 70% of the adult population.
In Northeast Tennessee, the numbers aren’t much better.
Washington County is the region’s only county with more than half its adult population at least partially vaccinated, with Sullivan and Unicoi counties the next-closest with about 47% of the adult populations there having gotten at least one dose. Roughly 45% of the region’s adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while about 40% are fully vaccinated.
In total, about 38% of Northeast Tennessee’s population has received at least one shot, and about a third are fully immune.
“I think, based on the numbers to date, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll hit 70% by July 4,” said Dr. Randy Wykoff, dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health. “Now, that could change, public opinion changes, information changes — if anything I think we’re seeing more people who are taking the pandemic a little less seriously, not more seriously.”
Due to natural immunity from past infection, however, Wykoff estimates somewhere between 42% to 72% of the region could have some form of immunity from both the vaccines and previous infection.
“I think from vaccination alone, it doesn’t look like we’re going to hit that 70% mark in the next month, but if you assume there’s some element of immunity from natural infection, we could be getting close to 70% — we could, theoretically, be there already but I suspect we’re moving in that direction,” Wykoff said, noting that there are still questions surrounding how much immunity those who had mild or asymptomatic infections have, or how long that immunity lasts.
In Sullivan County, the Sullivan County Regional Health Department has shifted from administering vaccines at mass vaccination sites to a more targeted strike team approach to get vaccines into parts of the community that need it most, such as group living settings, schools and the homeless. Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said they’re making a push to get those 12 and up vaccinated, but said he feels it’s going to be a “real challenge” to vaccinate 70% of the county’s adults by July 4.
“The problem is not with vaccine supply or vaccine delivery,” he said; “The real issue, I think, is complacency.”
May urged people to get vaccinated, noting that people in Northeast Tennessee are still being hospitalized and dying as a result of the disease. Last month, Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties reported 33 virus-related deaths (up from 20 in April) and 75 hospitalizations (down from 88 in April).
“The vaccine is the way you prevent that, and so that’s why it continues to be so important that we push people out of their complacent stances and encourage them to go ahead and get their vaccine,” said May. “We’ve given enough vaccine that we know the vaccine is safe, and we know the vaccine is effective.”
Dr. Amit Vashist, Ballad Health’s chief clinical officer, said the key to increasing the region’s vaccination rate is making it as easy as possible for people to get the vaccine, without interrupting their daily routine too much.
Vashist also said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for vaccinated individuals, allowing them to ditch their masks in virtually all settings, as well as more robust data on the safety and efficacy of the shots would boost vaccine turnout.
“There is a segment of the society that is outrightly hesitant, but I think the large part of the population lies somewhere in the middle, that they’re not as hesitant to take the vaccine, but there are issues around it being available and it being accessible at convenient hours at places that are convenient,” Vashist said. He noted that’s what has spurred Ballad to both do events themselves and collaborate with community partners to distribute the vaccine.
“That is absolutely the key going forward,” said Vashist.
Both May and Wykoff said if the region remains largely unvaccinated in the months leading up to the cooler months, when more and more people gather inside, it could leave the region susceptible to another spike in cases, particularly with more transmissible variant strains of the virus currently circulating in the area.
“We hope that it’s coming down because of vaccination and natural acquired immunity, but we don’t know for a fact that it’s not going to come back up again,” Wykoff cautioned.