Lawmakers question why Tennessee’s COVID-19 vaccine plan skipped Meharry Medical College frontline workers

(l-r) Rep. G.A. Hardaway, Dr. James Hildreth, and Sen. Brenda Gilmore

Lawmakers are questioning how a medical school that has provided frontline workers to fight the pandemic was overlooked by Tennessee health officials in the vaccine distribution plan.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Meharry Medical College, one of Nashville’s Historically Black Colleges, has partnered with the city of Nashville to administer COVID-19 testing at sites across the city.

Yet somehow when Gov. Bill Lee’s administration started distributing vaccines, Meharry was not on the list.

“It is inexcusable that Meharry’s frontline workers, who are interacting with COVID-19 positive people every day, were not considered a top priority in Gov. Bill Lee’s vaccine distribution plan,” said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of Legislators. “It is bad enough that a medical college on the front lines fighting the pandemic was overlooked in the vaccine distribution process. Add in the fact that this institution is an HBCU and it’s no wonder why Black Tennesseans all too often feel ignored and left behind by our state government.

“Equity and fairness never happen by accident. Whether you’re Black, White or Brown, we have to be intentional and committed to justice every step of the way,” Hardaway said.

On Tuesday, Meharry Medical College President Dr. James Hildreth revealed that his school secured vaccines for its frontline workers through the private company Hospital Corporation of America—not the state health department.

“Thanks to my colleagues at HCA for helping me get Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for Meharry front line healthcare providers,” Hildreth said. “Somehow Meharry did not make the list. I am so proud of Meharrians who have done their part in the fight against COVID-19.”

“Dr. Hildreth should have been consulted from the start of the pandemic. He is a world-renowned immunologist. Gov. Bill Lee should be engaging him and utilizing his talents to help get our state through this pandemic,” Hardaway said.

This oversight by the Lee administration aggravates long held concerns that Tennessee’s African American community has been neglected by state officials.

“I am both sad and disappointed that Meharry and General Hospital were not included in the first batch of vaccine. Again, whether known or not, it is politics and systemic racism,” Sen. Brenda Gilmore said.  “Dr. James Hildreth is nationally known and played a prominent role in the approval of the vaccine. How could Meharry have been overlooked? He is one of the smartest immunologists out there and he knows the science. This is also sad because Nashville General Hospital at Meharry serves some of our most marginalized people, who are likely the sickest patients. This puts their hospital and testing staff at far greater risk. They should have been some of the first to receive the vaccine.”

The vaccine slight against Meharry is made more offensive by reviewing state health statistics, which show that people of color in Tennessee have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“As a prime example of people of color being systematically disenfranchised, the ‘oversight’ of Meharry receiving COVID-19 vaccines is unacceptable,” said Rep. Sam McKenzie. “Those whom are most severely impacted continue to be left off the list of first benefits. We must ensure that the actions match the rhetoric and, in this case, the system failed our people.”