NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday that COVID-19 vaccines will be optional in the state's K-12 public schools, once they become available.
The Republican said at a news conference that vaccines will be very important for Tennessee to "ultimately really be able to handle" the virus. But he said he doesn't foresee COVID-19 mandates for school districts in Tennessee.
"Vaccines are a choice and people have the choice and will have the choice in this state as to whether or not they should take that vaccine," Lee said. "That will be our strategy and that is what we think will happen all across the state."
The comment comes as Tennessee and the country look toward initial, limited doses of vaccine that could arrive in the next few weeks, amid a surge in the coronavirus that is increasingly straining hospital systems. In Tennessee, the first doses, likely through Pfizer, could arrive around Dec. 15, with the initial Moderna vaccines expected a week later, said state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey.
The first wave will be reserved for frontline health care workers and first responders, Piercey said. She said the number of initial doses fluctuates pretty widely, but said it could be in the 80,000-100,000 dose range initially, with two doses required per person. She said she's unsure how quickly the second supply could come.
She said widespread availability would likely be in late spring or early summer.
Pfizer, for one, received permission last month to test its vaccine in U.S. children as young as 12. Some pediatricians worry children younger than 12 may not have a vaccine by next fall for a new school year.
Tennessee law currently allows parents to refuse to immunize their children as long as the state is "in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat of an epidemic." Other sections of Tennessee statute allow parents to deny immunizations of their kids "except where the medical examination, immunization or treatment is necessary for the protection of the health or safety of others."
One Republican state bill would remove the exemptions, allowing parents to opt out of school-required vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill also would give parents the option to cite "right of conscience" as a reason not to immunize their children. It's unclear how the legislation will fare this winter.
Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said in an email that "no one here recalls a time that was ever done" when asked about whether the state had ever enforced the epidemic exception.
Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee system has adopted a new immunization rule that allows the school to require students to have both the flu and coronavirus vaccinations. The rule will exempt students who enrolled only online and are not participating in in-person learning, and also will allow for medical or religious exemptions.
The 7-day rolling average of daily new cases in Tennessee has risen from 3,312 on Nov. 9 to 3,666 on Monday. The 7-day rolling average of daily deaths, meanwhile, has risen from 33 deaths on Nov. 9 to 54 on Monday.
While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older patients and those with other health problems.
Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.