Dr. James E.K. Hildreth President/CEO, Meharry Medical College

By Rosetta Miller Perry

NASHVILLE, TN — The numbers don’t lie. Black, Brown and poor communities are suffering disproportionately— economically and physically —from the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadliest to hit the nation in a little over a century.

That’s true locally and across the nation. 

But those communities don’t appear to be a concern in Tennessee, as the state’s distribution list for the first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine failed to include Meharry Medical College, which serves a large portion of Nashville’s minority and low-income communities.

Dr. James Hildreth, the college’s President and a member of the COVID-19 task force, was astonished.

The state distributed between 56,000 and 67,000 doses of Pfizer’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine last week, but the batch was divided between major hospitals. These entities then began vaccinating their employees.

Officials said the first wave of doses wasn’t allocated to any small hospitals or health care providers, but those are the very entities that minorities turn to for help rather than larger, more mainstream institutions. Governor Bill Lee’s office said under the state plan Meharry was “expected to receive doses this week from the Moderna shipment,” but somehow it resulted in Meharry getting left off the list and receiving no vaccine at all.

Tennessee health Commissioner Lisa Piercy said the first round of Pfizer doses went only to the larger health care providers because the company only shipped the vaccine in high-quantity “trays.”

Fortunately, Dr. Hildreth said publicly that HCA Healthcare and Metro Nashville Public Health Department stepped into the breach and shared some of its COVID-19 vaccine allocation. He added these doses would go to “front line healthcare providers,” with a Meharry spokesperson adding about 100 would go to college staff providing care in local clinics, allowing the city’s Black community access to the vital vaccine.

Patrick Johnson, Meharry’s senior vice president of institutional advancement, said it was “inexplicable” that the state’s plan didn’t include earlier doses for Meharry. The school has been heavily involved in both COVID-19 testing and treatment and Dr. Hildreth has repeatedly been enlisted by city officials to urge African Americans to trust the process and get vaccinated.

However, Dr. Hildreth said the state hadn’t engaged him in conversations about the virus response and added he never reviewed a vaccine distribution plan, two more things that seem at best strange and at worst negligent.

Ultimately these actions deny those hit hardest by COVID-19 access to the identical medicines and medical treatment other areas are receiving.