Hamilton County adds staff, fights misinformation ahead of COVID-19 vaccines

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Student nurse Sheila Jenkins prepares a flu vaccine during a drive-thru flu shot clinic at Westside Baptist Church on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

The first round of COVID-19 vaccines are set to arrive in Hamilton County this week, bringing hope and new challenges during the county's worsening battle with the coronavirus.

On Wednesday the county posted 500 new cases of COVID-19, its second highest ever daily increase in cases, and reported a record high 200 people hospitalized, with 44 in intensive care due to the virus.

Wednesday's case count brings the county to just over 24,000. That's 4,000 new cases, or 20% of the total year-to-date, in the 12 days since Dec. 4, when the county hit 20,000 after nearly nine months of the virus.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County breaks records for COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU patients, active cases, new cases)

But some hope is on its way to the county this week as local hospitals prepare to accept the first round of COVID-19 vaccines for healthcare workers.

"We are anticipating that hospitals will have vaccines for their staff this week," Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said during Wednesday's County Commission meeting. "That is definitely subject to change, but that was the last update that we have heard. That is just hospitals and just their staff. And that vaccine goes directly to hospitals."

At Wednesday's meeting, the County Commission approved the creation of two new state-funded positions at the health department - an emergency response coordinator and an additional pharmacy technician - to help the county roll out COVID vaccinations.

"Every day all this person does is work on vaccine implementation in the community," Barnes said of the new emergency role. "And then we need another pharmacy tech as we deal with, obviously, the larger number of vaccines that we're going to be dealing with.

"The state just had a finite amount of money and said 'What are your needs right now?' and so those were the two needs that we thought we needed the most right now in implementing the vaccination stage."

Barnes said the date for broader community vaccination is still unclear, but will follow the state's six tiers of distribution, based on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's social vulnerability index.

According to a diagram shared by the state last week, the first tier to receive the vaccine will include up to 450,000 inpatient and other high-exposure health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities and first responders.

Then, these groups will receive the vaccine in order of soonest to latest:

- All other health care workers, about 100,000 Tennesseans.

- Around 1.2 million Tennesseans with high-risk conditions.

- Some 2.55 million members of critical infrastructure, including school and child care staff, corrections and group care, those with moderate-risk conditions and those 65 and older.

- Roughly 2 million young adults, children and industry workers.

- About 500,000 remaining Tennesseans.

Barnes said those in the first group who are not vaccinated by hospitals will be vaccinated by the health department "fairly soon. The health department is using the meantime to prepare for the staff and resource undertaking that mass vaccination will require.

"I've heard all kinds of models about when we think the United States will be in this phase or this tier, and they're all estimates," Barnes said. "All I can say is that we are hiring as many people, getting as many relationships in our community as possible in place and our intent is to vaccinate as many people in our community as fast as we can, as fast as we can get the vaccine."

In addition to hiring additional medically trained personnel to administer the vaccine, Barnes said the health department is seeking "forms people" to handle administrative functions of the vaccination process.

"Not only are we running the testing drive-thru, which is a tremendous effort, but we are also gearing up to run these vaccination pods," she said, noting that county employees from other departments are working for the health department on nights and weekends to help meet demand.

"We can use definitely more professional people, both RNs/LPNs, anyone who has the capacity to give vaccines," she added. "Plus, we can use what we call 'forms people.' We're going to need people to enter vaccinations into the immunization registry."

Barnes said that the county has been adequately funding all necessary hires, but that it's a matter of finding enough available candidates in the community.

While working on staffing, health department officials are also prepping locations and methods to make the vaccine available to county residents.

"There will only be one drive-thru site because there will be a limited supply of vaccine. Other sites are in the process of being identified," Barnes said in a late Wednesday email. "Our staff will also have some strike teams to vaccinate non-ambulatory persons."

Beyond receiving and being prepared to distribute the vaccine, some commissioners raised concerns about how citizens would receive the vaccine.

"We're having a lot of discussion about vaccination, not just COVID but flu, and a lot of people are nervous and already talking about not taking [the vaccine]," Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter said, echoing similar remarks by Commissioner David Sharpe.

Barnes said the health department would work on education about vaccinations, but not until they were ready to distribute.

"We've got some other efforts that we're working on to do education and promotion," she said. "We haven't really started that because, first of all, there's only one vaccine that's been approved and before we really start trying to encourage people to take the vaccine, it needs to be available. We don't want to encourage people and then they get dismayed that they can't actually get the vaccine yet.

"As soon as we have the vaccine available in the community, other than these small, targeted high-risk groups, then we're going to be doing a lot of promotion and are looking, really, for all of our leaders in the community to step up and join us."

Before the meeting ended, multiple members of the public called in, each expressing concerns about the vaccine.

Commissioners emphasized the importance of vaccine education.

"As many of you know, my son is a research scientist at Pfizer and he is extremely concerned that there is a lot of misinformation being put out there," Commissioner Tim Boyd said. "He's right in the middle of this and he sent me all the peer reviews that their vaccine went through. And it would be, I think, beneficial for each of the commissioners to take a little time to review this peer review that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, as opposed to taking comments from people who may have questionable resources.

"Read from the professionals who do this and the due diligence they go through before they ever inject a human with a new drug," he added. "I hope our public understands that there are professionals that are out there doing their best to protect us and improve our health and safety throughout the world."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.