As one of the few HBCU medical schools in the country, Meharry Medical College has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school has been especially involved in frontline treatment and vaccine research. Yet, when it came time for the state government to distribute the vaccine to the first groups in most need, somehow Meharry did not make the list.

The fallout from Meharry being left out of vaccine distribution has been swift. According to a recent article from The Tennessee Tribune, the omission from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s list has been especially surprising because Meharry has partnered with the city of Nashville to administer COVID-19 testing at several local sites. The school has been nationally recognized as one of the nation’s HBCUs most involved in leading COVID-19 research and early testing.

Instead of support from the state government, Meharry actually had to outsource to get its hands on the new vaccine. According to Meharry’s President Dr. James Hildreth, the private Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) actually gave the school its vaccines.

Dr. James Hildreth, courtesy of The Tennessee Tribune

“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.”

Legislators like Rep. G.A Hardway, chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus of Legislators was stern in her rebuke of Meharry being left out of the state government’s plans.

“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,” Rep. Hardaway said.  “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.”

Sen. Brenda Gilmore was another leader to take a stand on the issue.

“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.”

Some background as to why Meharry was overlooked came from state health director Dr. Lisa Piercy, according to a story from Nashville station Fox 17. She said Meharry’s initial vaccine request wasn’t high enough to be considered.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, courtesy of The Tennessee Tribune

“The reason they didn’t get Pfizer to begin with is because their staff is not large enough to have used an entire case so they didn’t meet the order requirements,” said Dr. Piercy.

After President Dr. Hildreth called Gov. Lee and state health leaders to share his concerns on not receiving the vaccine, suddenly there were some changes. Dr. Piercy announced they would be sending Meharry some doses from the inventory they set aside in their reserves. There was no acknowledgement of Meharry’s work being a foundation for receiving vaccines regardless of the amount needed.

The situation highlights a history of disregard for health of those in the Black community. Dr. Shindana Faegins, head of the Metro Hospital Authority, framed the impact of the oversight well.

“It has amplified the fact that there are disparities in our healthcare system and its magnified the distrust that exist today with that system,” said Dr. Faegins.