Hamilton County declines to make COVID-19 vaccine data public after touting 'unfiltered' information the day before

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Signs directing people to the vaccination site at CARTA's Bus Barn on Wilcox Boulevard are pictured on Jan. 22, 2021.

A day after Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told county residents he wanted to provide COVID-19 vaccine information in "an unfiltered, uncensored way," the county's health department declined to provide information about the number of second doses it has or how many second dose appointments remain unfilled.

On Friday morning, the Times Free Press requested the Hamilton County Health Department provide data about the number of second dose appointment slots created, the number that were filled, the number of county residents eligible for a second shot and the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses the department was holding for those appointments.

Becky Barnes, administrator for the department, did not provide the requested data and, in an emailed response, said the department created more appointment slots to provide flexibility.

"The second dose number is a finite number and we have vaccine for them. There will be vacant appointment slots by design," Barnes said in the email.

Questions about people receiving the necessary second doses of the vaccine have continued as appointment slots for the first dose are filled but appointments for the second dose, administered at a different location, remain open.

Coppinger and Barnes participated in a Facebook Live briefing Thursday afternoon to answer common questions related to the vaccine. Multiple people in the comments of the broadcast asked the county mayor or the health department to answer questions related to second dose appointments. Those questions went unanswered at the time.

During the Facebook Live, Coppinger asked community members to be more positive and supportive of local efforts in fighting the pandemic. The new, weekly broadcast would be a way to address public concerns, he said.

"The intent is nothing other than to inform the public and to do it in an unfiltered, uncensored way to where we can make sure you're getting the best information and that you're not getting it from your internet or your Facebook or people that really do not understand what's going on as far as the details of the health department and the approach that we're taking," Coppinger said.

photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department Administrator of Health Services Becky Barnes speaks during a news conference in the Golley Auditorium at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department on Monday, May 18, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County launched an appointment system for vaccine distribution on Jan. 15. Slots for the first doses have quickly been filled as the department added additional days and appointment times.

Both available vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, require a second dose of the vaccine about a month after the first to provide full benefits. When people receive a first shot, they are given a card informing them of the date for their second dose.

The Times Free Press asked the health department about specific outreach efforts to ensure people made appointments for the second dose and whether the department was concerned about the undisclosed number of openings still available.

"An average of 1,000 people call the hotline daily to ask questions about the vaccine schedule and seek guidance with the appointment system," Barnes said in the email. "In addition, the Health Department has communicated second dose vaccine availability through the email newsletter, press releases, social media and the vast network of community partners."

Dr. Clarence Creech, director of the Vaccine Research Program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the best protection from the coronavirus is achieved by receiving both doses. There may be some protection with a single dose, he said, but the research showing the vaccines are more than 90% effective was based on participants receiving both shots.

Health departments in the past have struggled with administering two-dose vaccines, such as with vaccines for shingles or human papillomavirus, Creech said.

Creech said people should not be concerned if they missed the exact day listed on their vaccination card for their second dose. The two shots should be scheduled about a month apart but people should still get the second shot if more than a month has passed. There will still be benefits, he said.

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