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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County resident Joanne Denise reads a book to pass time as she waits in line on Amnicola Parkway to get the Pfizer Coronavirus vaccine at the Tennessee River Park on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thursday was the first day Hamilton County allowed for residents 75 and older to get vaccinated, which resulted wait hours long wait times.

The Hamilton County Health Department was forced to turn people away from its drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site after a record number of vaccine seekers quickly depleted the county's supply Thursday morning.

Thursday marked the first time that any resident age 75 and older was eligible to receive vaccine after the Tennessee Department of Health updated its COVID-19 Vaccination Plan on Wednesday, increasing the priority for the age groups at highest risk of serious COVID-19 illness and death.

Health department officials reported administering 1,188 doses of vaccine Thursday — a "substantial increase" over prior days — before running out of their allotment from the Tennessee Department of Health at around 1:30 p.m. Those who braved the long line entering the site on Amnicola Highway waited between two and three hours to get vaccinated, officials said.

Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said via email that the department's goal is to administer every dose of vaccine it receives, and availability is based on supply. Eligible people receive doses on a first-come, first-serve basis as long as vaccine is available.

"We will continue to deliver vaccine as long as it is in our inventory," Barnes said. "We are constantly looking at ways to improve our logistics and will make adjustments accordingly."

Health department officials announced plans to restart vaccination days for Hamilton County on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

"We will update the public as soon as this is confirmed. Subscribe to the Health Department's mailing list to get notified: http://bit.ly/3nWWh5P or follow us on social media," the announcement states.

(READ MORE: Where are you in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Hamilton County?)

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Hamilton County runs out of COVID-19 vaccine as newly eligible residents flock to drive-thru site

Health officials have emphasized that initial COVID-19 vaccine supplies will be extremely limited until production ramps up, more vaccines are approved and more providers can start giving shots. Currently, only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are authorized for use in the United States. Pfizer vaccine recipients are supposed to return after 21 days and Moderna recipients should return after 28 days for a second dose.

For this reason, each state has its own plan for how to allocate its limited supply of vaccine, starting with the most at-risk and vulnerable populations first. Those plans are subject to change as distribution evolves.

Tennessee's plan has undergone several changes since it was first introduced in October. Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news conference Wednesday that the latest update was an attempt to better tailor the plan to the state's needs based on officials' best predictions for supply.

"We don't control how fast the federal government sends it. We certainly don't control weather or warehouse delays, which we have experienced just in this last week," Piercey said. "We're just trying to be flexible and nimble based on the things that we can control."

Barnes encouraged Hamilton County residents to "monitor our information outlets: email newsletter, our Facebook and Instagram, our website, and information released through our media partners, or call our hotline at 423-209-8383" to stay up-to-date on any announcements or changes.

The health department's hotline received a record 908 calls on Wednesday, Barnes said.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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