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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County resident Mary Jo Jenkins 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.

Just over half of Hamilton County residents aged 61 and above have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, meaning many of those most at-risk for dying due to the coronavirus remain unprotected, according to county health officials.

The Hamilton County Health Department has released new data showing:

> 54% of residents age 81 and up have received at least one dose of vaccine

> 64% of residents between age 71 and 80 have received at least one dose

> 51% of those age 61 to 70 have received at least their first dose.

These are the same age groups that have experienced the brunt of COVID-19 deaths in the county, which is why the vaccination rate among those groups "needs to be much higher," health department administrator Becky Barnes said during an online briefing Thursday.

"I would like to see close to 100% of these age bands vaccinated. This is where we've had the high concentration of deaths in our community," Barnes said.

She urged anyone age 61 or older to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Barnes cited data on the ratio of cases to deaths in the county. Despite accounting for only 3% of Hamilton County's cumulative positive coronavirus cases, people aged 81 and above make up 37% of COVID-19 deaths in the county. Residents aged 71 to 80 represent just 5% of cases but 31% of deaths, and ages 61 to 70 represent 10% of cases but 18% of deaths.

Vaccine hesitancy, procrastination and other barriers are creating challenges to getting more vaccines in arms, Barnes said

"We as a health department are working hard to resolve all those issues. We have vaccine outreach programs that are ongoing, but if we have not reached you and you have questions or if you have needs, please call our hotline. They're there to connect you with what you need," she said.

The health department hotline number is 423-209-8383.

At the same time, vaccine availability in the county has increased substantially. Barnes said there's no longer a need to ration doses only for those who are most vulnerable.

Vaccine appointments at the health department are not filling up as fast as they used to, and Barnes said that's a good thing. Vaccine supplies have increased, and the health department now has many more appointment slots available. In addition, more providers outside the health department are also offering vaccines now, and the health department is still able to fill its appointments, so no appointments are going unused.

"When COVID immunizations became available, our message was, 'When it's your turn, get vaccinated, and get the first one that you're offered.' Our message has not changed, but the good news is, now it is everyone's turn — everyone age 16 and above," she said. "Now is everybody's time to be vaccinated. We can vaccinate our way out of this pandemic."

As a whole, 20% of Hamilton County residents — or about 72,550 people — have been fully vaccinated, according to health department data.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger also encouraged more people to get vaccinated so that the community can get closer to achieving "herd immunity." Herd immunity occurs when a large enough portion of the population is immune to an infectious disease that it provides indirect protection to others who aren't immune.

(READ MORE: Tennessee's low COVID-19 vaccination rate makes herd immunity less attainable; here's why that matters)

"This is what is going to bring normalcy back to our community," Coppinger said. "We need your help, and we're asking for your help. If you're in the age group of 61 and above, this can save your life or the life of a loved one. So, please, take an opportunity to go out and get this free vaccine."

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

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