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Tennessee’s COVID Vaccine Distribution Depends Heavily On ‘Honor System’

Blake Farmer

As Tennessee widens the eligibility for who can get a COVID-19 vaccine, many health officials statewide are mostly taking people’s word that they qualify.

Almost every county opened vaccination to people 75 and up this week. So Frank Bargatze of Murfreesboro got an appointment for his father and went ahead and put his own name in, though he’s 63.

“He’s 88,” Bargatze says, pointing to his father in the passenger seat after they received their vaccination. “I jumped on his bandwagon. I’m going to blame it on him.”

Bargatze says he does work a few days a week with people in recovery from addiction, so in a way, he might qualify as a health care worker.

Overwhelmed health departments aren’t doing much vetting, says Dr. Lorraine MacDonald, Rutherford County’s medical examiner. She’s been working at the county’s vaccination site this week.

“That’s a difficult one,” MacDonald says of people near the age cutoff joining family members in getting the vaccine. “It’s pretty much the honor system.”

People getting vaccinated in Williamson and Rutherford counties this week say they did not have to show ID or proof of qualifying employment. Health departments are generally erring on the side of giving the shot. The state has told them people do not have to be a resident or be in the country legally to get the vaccine.

MacDonald says if people seeking the vaccine make it through the signup process online and show up for their appointment, health officials are not going to ask any more questions — as long as they’re on the list from the online signup.

Still, she acknowledges that some people under 75 need the vaccine more than those over that line.

Gayle Boyd of Murfreesboro is 74 and in remission from lung cancer. She says she was so eager to get the vaccine, she joined her slightly older husband.

“Nobody’s really challenged me on it,” she says, noting that she made sure to tell them her risk factors. “Everybody’s been exceptionally nice.”

Technically, in the state’s current vaccine plan, having a risk factor like lung cancer doesn’t lift anyone into the current phase.

Public health officials admit the cutoff is imperfect. But ultimately, the point is getting vaccine to the people who need it most — first.

“We try to be responsible,” says Gina Kay Reid of Eagleville, who says she chose not to slip in as she brought her husband and mother to get vaccinated on Wednesday. “If you take one and don’t necessarily need it, you’re knocking out somebody else that is in that higher risk group.”

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