Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / After getting vaccinated, residents receive a pin during a block party at the BlueCross Healthy Place at Highland Park in Chattanooga in June.

In the early days of the spring rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, the challenges were largely logistical: Getting the vaccines where they needed to go, and administering them to thousands of people eager to have the shots.

"At the beginning, we started one of our pods where initially the first day we opened, we gave about 1,000-plus vaccines and people waited in line for hours," says Dr. Fernando Urrego, interim Hamilton County health officer. "It was bumper-to-bumper, and we had the highest risk group there — we had senior citizens waiting in cars for hours. There was a big learning curve and a lot of growing pains at the beginning."

Now, however, the challenges are even more complex, he says.

"We were doing big days in terms of vaccine numbers and then it was almost like a light switch turned off," Urrego says. "The real challenge now are the people that are vaccine-resistant. It doesn't matter what you tell them, it doesn't matter how you frame the reality of what the science is, they are going to be a group that is very difficult to reach."

Tight collaboration across health care providers and community groups has been key to the COVID-19 response from the beginning of the crisis, but efforts to reach the unvaccinated have inspired a new level of coordinated effort, Urrego says.

"We are at a point in this effort where we really have to come together again as a group, as a community, and find ways to get to these folks," he says. "Get Vaccinated Chattanooga are doing an amazing job reaching a lot of the groups still on the fence. They really have built an incredible effort to really get it done."

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Take your shot: Health care and community outreach teams collaborate on vaccine efforts

The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga is administering Get Vaccinated Chattanooga, a cross-cultural collective funded by grants from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, The Community Foundation and the Benwood Foundation.

LaDarius Price, outreach coordinator for Cempa Community Care, leads the African American working group in the Get Vaccinated Chattanooga effort.

"In the last month I have literally held individuals' hands while they get vaccinated," Price says. "Being an ambassador, it's not easy. In my community, we have such a high distrust for the medical field."

Working groups include representatives from across high-risk populations, including people who are experiencing homelessness and people with disabilities, in addition to people from minority communities, Urrego says.

"This was really an awesome opportunity for everybody to get involved, for everybody to sit at the table and say, we realize how complicated this is, but we need to find a way to work together and make this complicated process work for the well-being of our community," he says.

The city of Chattanooga is offering vaccines at community centers and the public library through its newly formed Office of Community Health, and CHI Memorial Hospital is providing vaccines and staffing for community vaccination events.

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga pop-up locations and block parties in neighborhoods across the city draw people who might otherwise miss an opportunity to get the vaccine, Urrego says. Vaccination drop-ins at sporting events and public concerts catch some folks, too. But as demand for the vaccine waned, the nature of the challenge shifted, he says.

"We are not going to get the numbers of vaccinations we were getting at the beginning," he says. "At this point, if we vaccinate one person at any of these events, that's a win."

Get Vaccinated Chattanooga working groups

The effort is funded by a $401,664 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, as well as an additional $20,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and $10,000 from the Benwood Foundation. The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga is administering the program. CHI Memorial is providing vaccinations and staff for community clinics.

African American Working Group

Ternae Jordan Sr., senior pastor of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church

LaDarius Price, Cempa Community Care

Mary Lambert, City of Chattanooga

Martina Harris, Chattanooga State Community College

Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, Hamilton County Commissioner, District 5

Latinx Working Group

Paulo Hutson Solorzano, Cempa Community Care

Older Adults Working Group

Kristi Wick, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Nursing

Homeless/Re-Entry Population Working Group

Wendy Winters, Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition

Chris Sands, Olivet Baptist Church

People with Disabilities Working Group

Dave Buck, Chattanooga Autism Center

Donna Maddox, The AIM Center

Pediatrics/K-12 Working Group

Jennifer Bronson, Hamilton County Schools

Ryan Ledford, Hamilton County Schools

Creative Communications

James McKissic, ArtsBuild


However, the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases as the delta variant spreads appears to be driving more people to seek vaccinations, and continuing to collaborate to make the vaccine widely available is essential, Urrego adds.

"We're at a point where those vaccine-resistant folks really may see these COVID numbers go up and the deaths go up, and we really make it a point to get them to understand that it's because these folks are not vaccinated," he says.

In early August, after falling steadily since mid-April, the rate of people getting their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine more than doubled over two weeks in Hamilton County and the surrounding area of Southeast Tennessee. At that time, Hamilton County averaged more than 500 first-dose shots a day. The county was averaging around 150 first-dose shots a day about three weeks earlier.

However, those numbers are far below the peak demand that came in March, when the region averaged 3,646 first doses a day in a week.

"The community needs to come together and needs to combine efforts because that's what it's going to take," Urrego says. "Hopefully we are able to get more shots in arms, bring our cases down and keep the community healthy."


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