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Tennessee Vaccine Distribution Relies On 'Honor System'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to the other major story we are following - the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to rage. This week, the U.S. set a new record for the number of COVID deaths in a single day at over 4,000. Meanwhile, some states are now gradually expanding eligibility rules as they distribute vaccines. And it's becoming clear that those who administer the shots will often have to take people's word for it on whether they qualify. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has this report.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Like a growing number of states, Tennessee has opened up vaccinations to seniors. Here, it's 75 and up. So Frank Bargatze signed up his father and went ahead and put himself on the list, though he's 63.

FRANK BARGATZE: I just jumped on - he's 88, so I jumped on his bandwagon (laughter). I'm going to blame it on him (laughter).

FARMER: I talked to the Bargatzes in their truck at an office complex in Murfreesboro being used as a mass vaccination site. Workers are giving the shots through the window. The younger Bargatze says he does work a few days a week with people in recovery from addiction, so to him, he might qualify as a health care worker.

The truth is, health departments aren't doing much vetting, says Dr. Lorraine MacDonald.

LORRAINE MACDONALD: That's a difficult one.

FARMER: I don't get the sense that there's a whole lot of investigation that, like, you are that person or you do live here.

MACDONALD: Right.

FARMER: Is that just something you...

MACDONALD: It's pretty much honor system.

FARMER: Really?

MACDONALD: Yeah, pretty much.

FARMER: MacDonald is the local medical examiner and has been working at the county's drive-through vaccination site this week. Tennessee's local health departments are not required by the state to check IDs or proof of qualifying employment. Their directive is to err on the side of getting shot down. MacDonald says if people make it through the sign-up process online and show up for their appointment, they're not going to be turned away. She acknowledges that some people under 75 need the vaccine more than those over the line. I told her about Gayle Boyd.

GAYLE BOYD: I'm 74.

FARMER: But she's also in remission from lung cancer. She says she was so eager to get the vaccine, she joined her slightly older husband.

BOYD: Well, I mean, nobody's really challenged me on it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You had to tell them you had lung cancer.

BOYD: Well, I mean, I do tell them that first off, so maybe that eliminates the challenge, so - but either way, no, I've - everybody's been exceptionally nice.

FARMER: Now, technically, in Tennessee's vaccine plan, having lung cancer doesn't make her eligible in the current phase, though she is high-risk. A few cars down, 57-year-old Gina Kay Reid sits in the backseat with her husband and mother up front. She says she didn't consider trying to slip in with them, who are both over 75.

GINA KAY REID: We try to be responsible because you think, you know, if you take one and don't necessarily need it, you're knocking out somebody else that is in that higher-risk group

FARMER: But these debates about who deserves vaccine more are destined to continue until there are more than enough shots to go around.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

MARTIN: That story came from NPR's partnership with Nashville Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "SHADOW BOXING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.