NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee has some of the worst COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, trailing all but two states in the percent of its adult population considered to be fully vaccinated, an analysis by NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows Tennessee ranks 48th among the 50 states in the percentage of adults fully vaccinated, 48th in the percentage of adults who’ve received at least one dose, 47th in the number of doses administered per 100,000 residents, and 45th in the percentage of seniors age 65 and up now vaccinated.
“I am concerned about those numbers for the obvious reasons,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“We would like to get to that point that we call ‘herd immunity’ -- where it’s much more difficult for the virus to spread amongst ourselves because such a high proportion of the adult population is vaccinated -- and we are nowhere near that yet.”
Tennessee 48th among adult vaccinations
The CDC data shows that just 23.4 percent of Tennessee adults have been fully vaccinated. Only Alabama and Georgia have worse records (with 22.1 and 21.4 percent, respectively).
Another Southern state, Arkansas, is in the bottom five, along with Utah.
By contrast, Alaska leads the country with nearly 40 percent of its adults fully vaccinated, followed by New Mexico at 38.2 percent and South Dakota at 37.8 percent.
Rhode Island and Maine round out the top five.
Tennessee’s neighbor to the north, Kentucky, is 22nd in the country, with 31.1 percent of its adults fully vaccinated.
In addition, just 38.8 percent of Tennessee adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, with only Alabama and Mississippi posting worse numbers than the Volunteer State on that front.
But New Hampshire far exceeds other states in the percentage of adults receiving at least one dose, recording a success rate of 65.2 percent, according to the CDC data.
New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts are next in line.
Kentucky is 27th in the country with 46.6 percent of adults having received at least one dose.
Tennessee 45th among senior vaccinations
Tennessee is also 45th in the country in the percentage of adults age 65+ who have been fully vaccinated and the percentage of seniors who received at least one dose.
The CDC says 54.9 percent of Tennessee seniors have been fully vaccinated, compared to an astounding 78.4 percent in Rhode Island.
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) April 15, 2021
“We started out kind of like a house afire, but we seem to have slipped,” Schaffner said.
Tennessee’s lagging vaccination numbers cannot be blamed on a shortage of vaccines.
The latest CDC numbers show that Tennessee has received 4,671,560 vaccine doses, but administered just 3,299,283 of them.
That’s 67.8 percent, putting the state at 43rd among the 50 states in utilization of its vaccine supply.
It is unknown how many doses Tennessee might have available that it has simply not asked to be shipped to the state.
“The eager beavers are still coming out, those first accepters,” Schaffner said.
“But particularly in our rural areas – and we a lot of people living in rural areas – there are people not coming forward for vaccination. We have ample appointment space, and those appointments are not being filled.”
CDC data shows that tiny Moore County – the home of the Jack Daniel’s Distillery – has the worst COVID-19 vaccination rates of the state’s 95 counties.
Just 10.5 percent of Moore County adults have been fully vaccinated, compared to 33.8 percent in Loudon County, outside of Knoxville, and 29.5 percent in Williamson County.
Metro Nashville-Davidson County comes in at 19th with 24.8 percent fully vaccinated.
Among those age 65 and up, 26.3 percent of Moore County seniors have been fully vaccinated, a far cry from the 72.7 percent in Williamson and Meigs counties.
That compares to 59.7 percent in Davidson, which ranks 13th.
Moore County Mayor Bonnie Mayor questioned the numbers, noting that Moore County shares zip codes with several neighboring counties.
Still, she admitted there are skeptics.
“The same argument or the same fear that you hear everywhere else, it's the same in Moore County,” Lewis said.
“You know, was there enough research done? Is it going to alter my DNA? Whatever that discussion is. But then there's also some people they don't want two appointments for anything, so they are going to wait for the Johnson & Johnson and get their one shot and go.”
That was before federal and state governments put a pause on distribution of the J&J vaccine.
What’s the solution?
Dr. Schaffner said the answer is: “leadership, leadership and leadership.”
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) April 15, 2021
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has been more muted in his comments about the COVID vaccines than other political figures. The Williamson County Republican says he got a vaccine but, unlike many of his colleagues, Lee did not distribute photos of himself setting the example.
The state also spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign urging Tennesseans to wear masks, but has not produced any commercials advocating vaccinations.
“I think we need our political leaders, both at the state and the local level, to make unequivocal statements that everyone should be vaccinated – everyone!” Schaffner said.
The infectious disease expert also called for religious and business leaders to sound the call for vaccinations.
But Mayor Lewis said, while she has not been shy about touting her own decision to get vaccinated, that’s where her advocacy stops.
“I don't make it my job to change somebody's mind,” Lewis said. “I think people are pretty learned. They will find the facts out for their own families.”
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed up, “So if people believe something that's not true, you don't think it's your job to try to convince them of the science?”
“I've shared the science,” Lewis insisted. “But as far as 'convince,' I'm not going to go out of my way to prove you wrong, ok? That's not my job.”
Potential concern if trends continue
Dr. Schaffner said he worries about what might happen if more isn’t done to combat misinformation across the state.
“Across the state of Tennessee if we can’t get these numbers up, we will have patches of our population that are well vaccinated, they will be relatively spared,” he explained.
“But in the under-vaccinated part, this virus will live on. It will keep being transmitted and take neighbors and friends and family members and put them in the hospital.”