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Local Officials Encourage Public to Seize Upon Expanded Vaccine Eligibility

Macy Hinds, DVIDS (Public Domain)


While the first phases of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution had narrow groups of people in mind—such as healthcare workers, teachers and the elderly—eligibility has broadened beyond just age and occupation categories in recent weeks. But, local health officials worry that too many of those at heightened risk for complications from the disease and who currently qualify for vaccination may not know they can get in line.

More than one million additional Tennesseeans became eligible for inoculation last Monday after the state expanded vaccinations to any individual over 16 with a health condition that raises their chances of having a severe case of COVID. That includes high blood pressure, diabetes or asthma, among others. (Find a complete list here). 

About 36 percent of Tennesseans appear to qualify due to a body mass index of greater than 30, a metric that takes into account a person’s height and weight. (Calculate yours here). 

“I know none of us really want to admit that we’re overweight, but a person that’s 5’9” who weighs more than 203 pounds should now be eligible for a vaccine,” Gina Sweat, Memphis’ Fire Department director, said at a press conference Tuesday counseling people to check their eligibility. “Your BMI is likely over 30.” 

Pregnant women and anyone over age 65 can also sign up. 

Shelby County follows the state’s strategy for vaccine priority groups, but health officer Dr. Bruce Randolph says that pacing may need to be accelerated. He'd like to see groups such as grocery store workers bumped up. He'd also like to meet the Biden administration’s goal of having a vaccine available to any adult who wants one in May.

“Especially in light of the fact that we are soon approaching a situation where we may have more vaccine than people signing up,” he said. “We want to vaccinate as many people as we can, as soon as we can, and so we are exploring ways to achieve that goal.”

So far, there’s been about a 10-percent no-show rate at vaccination sites, officials have previously said. They ask that people not double up on appointment bookings, and to cancel if they can’t make it so someone else can fill the slot.

The city has been employing pop-up vaccination sites to target areas of the city—such as neighborhoods in Frayser and Hickory Hill—where innoculation rates lag behind other zip codes.

The head of the City of Memphis’ vaccination operation, Doug McGowen, hopes this tactic will help decrease the county’s current racial disparity for vaccines administered. About 30 percent of all local shots have gone to African Americans although demographically they represent roughly 54 percent of the population.

One recent poll indicates a majority of African Americans are not reluctant to be vaccinated, and one even shows the the rates of reluctance between Black people and white people are similar.

“We have more work to do in our efforts to make sure that we can reach people no matter where they live,” McGowen said.

Meanwhile, all city-run vaccination locations will be closed Wednesday (March 17) because of anticipated bad weather including hail and thunderstorms. Those with appointments should receive an email or call to reschedule.