Vaccination rates continue falling in Hamilton County, threatening herd immunity and prolonging COVID-19 pandemic

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga resident Leah Lanaman looks away as nurse practitioner Jennifer Patterson administers the vaccine at the Howard School in Chattanooga on Saturday April 24, 2021.

The number of new people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 in Hamilton County each day is about a third of what it was a month ago as the region grapples with the regional and nationwide problem of vaccine hesitancy and plummeting rates of new patients getting shots.

Over the past seven days, the county is averaging 458 new people receiving shots per day compared to the 1,206 people a day it averaged on April 7.

The Hamilton County Health Department is only operating one vaccination site now, at the Tennessee Riverpark, because of low demand. The CARTA Bus Barn and Enterprise South Nature Park, which were both used during peak demand for the vaccine, remain options if demand increases, said Becky Barnes, administrator for the county health department.

"We encourage everyone that has not gotten their vaccine to consider doing so to protect themselves and others," Barnes said in a statement. "The vaccines have proven to be effective and safe and are preventing many people from severe COVID disease and death. More than 100 million Americans have already received at least one dose of the vaccine. We feel the time to get your vaccine is here."

As of Thursday, 31.8% of the county was fully vaccinated, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

The county's seven-day average for new people receiving a dose peaked on March 16 with 2,262 new people a day. If the county maintained that rate, 53% of county residents would have received at least one dose as of Thursday.

Pop-up vaccine events in Hamilton County

The Hamilton County Health Department is making available doses of the Pfizer vaccine during pop-up events at the following locations:The Bethlehem Center, 200 West 38th St, Chattanooga, TN 3741011 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays — May 8, 15, 29 and June 19Super Carniceria Loa #6, 400A Chickamauga Rd Chattanooga, TN 3742111 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays — May 14 and June 4Birchwood Clinic, 5625 Highway 60, Birchwood TN, 373089 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays — May 19, 26 and June 9, 16

Instead, 38.6% of county residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Two weeks ago, that number was 36.7% of county residents, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Other than several days of high numbers in mid-April, the average number of new people receiving doses dropped from mid-March, even after the county opened appointments to all residents age 16 and older on March 26.

For weeks, county officials have urged residents to get vaccinated, especially as new cases and hospitalizations continue to be driven by younger people who have not been vaccinated. As of Friday, there were 43 people hospitalized in Hamilton County with the virus and 556 active cases in the community.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the availability of vaccines was a factor in his decision to end the countywide mask mandate at the end of April. The vaccines provided the community another tool to fight the virus, he said, encouraging people to get their dose.

In the opening weeks of 2021, many residents felt anxiety over the inability to find a vaccine appointment and much attention was paid to the size of weekly vaccine shipments from the federal government to states. Supply appeared to begin outpacing demand in Southeast Tennessee weeks ago and, according to analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the same may be true for the rest of the nation in the coming weeks.

This week, the Biden Administration said it would reallocate vaccines from states with low demand to areas still seeking the shots. The president's new goal is to have at least one dose in 70% of Americans by July 4.

Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama have among the lowest vaccination rates per 100,000 residents in the 50 states, with Georgia ranking 45th, Tennessee ranking 47th and Alabama ranking 50th, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In thinking about risk, state- and especially county-level vaccination data is more important to follow than nationwide trends, since infectious diseases are primarily spread locally, said Richard Carpiano, professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside.

Health experts have warned the longer it takes to reach high vaccination levels, the longer the pandemic will continue and areas with low vaccination rates are at risk for becoming hot spots for the virus in the months and years to come.

These areas with low rates will face greater economic burdens, too, as any public health response to trace and contain an outbreak will require taxpayer money that could otherwise go to other needs, Carpiano said.

Carpiano said that while there is reason for some concern with the large number of vaccine hesitant people, he believes there is still a sizable group of Americans who are interested in getting the vaccine but have not been able to access it or who are still watching the effects the shots are having on others. Targeted outreach efforts to these areas will be important, whether that is in their communities or at places of work, he said.

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga, the city's campaign to fight hesitancy and increase vaccination rates, has hosted pop-up vaccination events in areas struggling with particularly low rates to decrease barriers associated with getting shots, such as access to transportation.

The county health department is working with community partners to host other pop-up vaccination events offering the Pfizer vaccine in the coming weeks, including at The Bethlehem Center, Super Carniceria Loa and Birchwood Clinic.

The health department encourages people to visit to make vaccine appointments online or visit to find other locations offering vaccines across the region.

Those who do not have access to the internet can call the health department to make an appointment over the phone. The number for first-dose appointments is 423-209-5398, and people who speak Spanish can call 423-209-5384 to talk to a bilingual staff member.

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