Hamilton County's most at-risk residents feel frustrated by COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / University of Tennessee at Chattanooga nursing student Lauren Buffington carries a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine near the Hubert Fry Center at the Tennessee Riverpark on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Some of Hamilton County's most at-risk residents are frustrated and confused as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and local access to the vaccine remains difficult.

Just minutes after 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, the line for COVID-19 vaccines in Hamilton County reached capacity. The available doses were all spoken for nearly three hours before the vaccinations were scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., marking another day when demand for the vaccine far outpaced local supply in Chattanooga.

For elderly residents, people who have been asked to stay indoors and away from others for months given their high risk, the uneven and unpredictable nature of the vaccine rollout is demoralizing. Some described new, months-old family members they have yet to meet or holidays they missed because of social distancing.

Ora Hudson, 78, said she does not understand the Hamilton County Health Department's decision to distribute vaccines on Amnicola Highway. The drive there is difficult for many older people, on top of having to wait in line for hours just to have a chance at getting a dose, she said.

"Who can do that?" Hudson said. "Half of us either got diabetes or something. We can't be in line like that. Who in the world would come up with something as stupid as that?"

Approximately 2,000 doses were available for people in the eligible groups on Tuesday and Wednesday at the health department's drive-thru distribution site at 4501 Amnicola Highway. On both days, cars lined up hours before sunrise and the health department announced no more vaccines were available.

Terry Keister, 88, said she does not go out much anymore with the pandemic, besides maybe going to the grocery store. She hoped she could get the vaccine this week. It would be the first step of breaking up the monthslong monotony of staying home.

"It was frustrating because you try to get in there but 'Oh no, don't even bother, don't even come' when it's 10 o'clock in the morning," she said.

The prospect of getting in line for the vaccine at 3 a.m. is just not realistic for her, Keister said.

The seemingly required step of waiting in line for hours just to be able to get a vaccine, then waiting in the same line for hours more to actually receive the dose, is too much for some elderly residents. The health department stationed portable bathrooms in the waiting area but people worried they may not be able to make it to the facilities in time.

Older residents are particularly at risk for severe infections and death from the virus. The health department has reported 286 deaths from the virus since March, with 238 of those coming among residents aged 61 or older. Long-term care facilities in the area have been hit especially hard with infection and death rates far higher than the surrounding community. On Monday, the county health department sent teams to vaccinate care facility residents and completed vaccinations for residents at the riverpark site for a total of 245 vaccinations.

The Walgreen's where Hudson gets her flu shot is less than a quarter-mile away from her Brainerd apartment. She wonders why she cannot go there or to her doctor to receive a dose.

Vaccine rollouts across the nation have been plagued by scarce supplies and logistical challenges with scenes of long lines mirroring those in Hamilton County. Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines, which are the only two COVID-19 vaccines now authorized for use in the United States, must be stored in ultra-cold temperatures, which creates an additional obstacle when organizing mass vaccination efforts compared to most other vaccines. These requirements are why the distribution of the available vaccines has not been possible through local drug stores.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 328,500 doses had been distributed to Tennessee as of Tuesday. According to the latest report from the Tennessee Department of Health, 169,070 people in Tennessee have received their first dose of the vaccine.

The Hamilton County Health Department has not announced the next day vaccines will be available.

During a meeting with statewide nonprofit leaders Wednesday, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, medical director for the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program in the state health department, said local health departments should receive more doses early next week. Tennessee is expecting 41 boxes of the Pfizer vaccine and 70 boxes of the Moderna vaccine this week, though this is not enough to create widespread availability, she said.

"What we have in Tennessee is not a distribution problem. We have a math problem," Fiscus said on the call. "We currently have 306 sites that are ready to receive vaccines. We have 2,001 sites that would like to get vaccine. We can't distribute mass quantities of vaccine across the state to all of these places."

Indravadan Patel, 76, took time off from his usual 6 a.m. shift at a local motel to get in line. He arrived at the distribution site at 6:15 Wednesday morning, he said, only to learn he missed the cut-off by a matter of minutes.

"We are older people," Patel said. "So many people suffered today. There are no proper guidelines here. So now I worry when my next turn will be."

He said getting the vaccine felt like a duty but was confused by how quickly the vaccine was gone for people deemed eligible. Patel will need to take off work again the next time vaccines are available.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to break records in Hamilton County. On Wednesday, the health department reported 525 new cases and 4,035 active cases. Along with the record number of active cases, the county is averaging 421 new cases a day in the past week.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.