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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Dr. Fernando Urrego speaks during a press conference about vaccination for COVID-19 at the Hamilton County Health Department's Golley Auditorium on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County leaders and health experts are striking a hopeful tone as the COVID-19 vaccine arrives in Chattanooga despite clear warnings about the dangers gathering for Christmas could mean in the months ahead.

Becky Barnes, administrator for the Hamilton County Health Department, said the department received 1,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday and expects to receive an additional 1,800 doses Wednesday. More doses are expected to arrive intermittently in the coming weeks.

The shipment's arrival starts the immediate distribution of the vaccine to those on the front line in fighting the virus and those at most risk of severe cases, including hospital staff, first responders, home health care staff, as well as staff and residents of long-term care facilities, according to the state's distribution plan.

The health department will start administering vaccines at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning at a pop-up location at the Tennessee Riverpark Hubert Fry Center. The nearby park will be closed Dec. 23 and from Dec. 26 to Dec. 29 while vaccines are being distributed.

Barnes said the initial shipment is not enough to vaccinate the entire number of people in Hamilton County who qualify for the first phase so the health department is working with each organization to vaccinate a percentage of each group. Around 11,000 people qualify for the first phase in Hamilton County, though the health department will not have to vaccinate the entire group because some organizations like long-term care facilities already have contracts in place with other groups to conduct the vaccinations.

The health department will send teams with vaccine doses to facilities where people may not otherwise be able to access the vaccination site, Barnes said.

"Today is truly a historic day for us at the health department and also for the community," she said.

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Hamilton County press conference on COVID-19 vaccinations

The news comes as Hamilton County is in some of the worst weeks of the pandemic to date. On Tuesday, the health department reported 519 new cases and 3,927 active cases. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is raging across Tennessee, making the state among the worst in the nation for per capita cases. The surge has brought swift criticism toward Gov. Bill Lee, who has continued to decline opportunities to implement a statewide mask mandate. The governor has instead left the decision up to local county mayors to create any such requirements.

"The reason statewide mask mandates, I believe, are not helpful is because they're controversial," Lee said. "Everyone who wants a mask mandate is already wearing a mask."

Instead, the governor issued a new executive order Sunday restricting public indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Rae Bond, chair of Hamilton County's COVID-19 Joint Task Force, said local residents need to be cautious with the Christmas holiday just days away. The voice of caution and to follow recommendations to not meet with people outside your household echo similar calls from around Thanksgiving.

The recent spike in cases and hospitalizations is linked to the gatherings that still took place, Bond said during a Tuesday news conference.

"We had a significant surge in cases that has been attributed to gatherings," she said. "The majority of COVID cases in our community actually are among people under the age of 40. While they may be able to fight the virus successfully and even only have some minor symptoms, when they share the virus with older friends or older relatives or coworkers those folks may not be so fortunate."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said local hospital systems are "stressed" and "stretched" and urged people to follow the guidance of wearing a mask, washing their hands and keeping their distance from others. The good news is the vaccine has arrived but it will be weeks before many can access it so the community must stay vigilant, Coppinger said.

"What we're seeing right now in our hospitals and in our community is certainly a rather large uptick in the number of new cases as a result of the gatherings at Thanksgiving," he said. "What we want to do is reach out again to the community and ask you to think this through, think this through as you plan your Christmas gatherings."

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

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