Hamilton County officials on Thursday confirmed that a much more contagious variant of the coronavirus is spreading in the Chattanooga region, even as they offered the first detailed plans for a third vaccination site to open Friday, at Enterprise South Nature Park.
The county's vaccination efforts are expanding to the third site as case levels continue to decline. The initiative comes as county Mayor Jim Coppinger confirmed the presence of the variant for the first time.
"You've heard a lot about variants throughout the county. We have identified that here in Hamilton County," Coppinger said during a Thursday afternoon livestream. "This just means it's a much more contagious [strain] of this virus."
Coppinger told the Times Free Press after the livestream he was referring to COVID-19 samples analyzed by Baylor School research scientists, who presented their findings during this week's COVID-19 Joint Task Force meeting.
Baylor school scientist Elizabeth Forrester said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed that several patients from the Chattanooga region whose samples were sent to Baylor for testing were infected by the B117 variant, commonly referred to as the U.K. variant.
B117 spreads more easily and quickly than other variants, according to the CDC. Some reports from the United Kingdom indicate that B117 may be associated with an increased risk of death, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding.
The health department will begin giving doses at Enterprise South on Friday at 9 a.m. to those with appointments.
Sabrina Novak, director of administrative services for the health department, presented a map of the traffic flow through the park. People seeking doses will drive the one-way road through a short loop in the park, with a waiting area, a screening station and a section of the road for people to pull over and wait to ensure there are no negative reactions to the vaccine.
"The lovely thing about the Enterprise South location is, even though we're starting out with the small loop, we actually have an opportunity to expand that to a medium route and large route as well. So, if at any point, we want to increase the number of appointments that go through this property, we have that flexibility to be able to do so," Novak said.
As of Wednesday, more than 59,000 vaccine doses had been given in Hamilton County, and the county was averaging around 850 new first dose vaccines a day in the past week, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department. Starting Monday, county residents age 65 and older, as well as workers in phase 1b, will be eligible for vaccines.
The decision to expand the age eligibility and include workers in child care and pre-school as well as K-12 teachers and school staff will add tens of thousands of people to the eligible pool as county officials continue to say vaccine supply is limited.
Coppinger said Thursday the goal is to get 80% of Hamilton County vaccinated and asked residents to talk to people they know who may be hesitant to receive a dose.