Starting Tuesday, Hamilton County residents, workers or students ages 16 and up can show up to the health department's first-dose COVID-19 vaccination sites between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. without an appointment and get worked into that day's schedule.
There is no guarantee a drive-up appointment will be available, but health department staff will allow those without a prior appointment to use any unfilled slots or to take the place of no-shows.
On average, about 10% of people don't show up for appointments, leaving several open slots each hour of the day, and available appointments continue to expand as vaccine supplies increase, health department officials said during a news briefing Monday.
The change in policy will not affect people with scheduled appointments while at the same time expanding options for more people to be vaccinated, officials said.
"The best way to ensure you have an appointment when you want it is still to make an appointment ahead of time," Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said via news release. "However, we feel we can now make this adjustment to allow more flexibility for our community as vaccine capacity has increased both at the health department and community provider sites."
During Monday's briefing, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger gave his strongest vaccination pitch to date, pleading with those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.
"It's very concerning that we're not getting more people to take vaccinations, because this is what we know to be our defense against the COVID-19 [virus] and even variants," Coppinger said, warning of spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations around the country driven by younger people and others who haven't been vaccinated.
"If we can't get enough vaccinations in people's arms, we're going to see that here, and you're going to see an uptick again," he said. "We've got to get people to take this a lot more seriously. We're all COVID fatigued, we're tired of masks, we're tired of the social distancing or whatever, but you can't let your guard down. We're at a very critical time right now."
Though last week the health department directly addressed those ages 61 and up who had not been vaccinated, Barnes said it's also important for younger groups to get vaccinated. That's because those ages are typically more mobile and therefore drive transmission of the coronavirus, she said.
"We need to protect a certain segment of our community because they're more prone to serious illness and death. On the other hand, that other group are the spreaders, so to speak, of the virus," Barnes said. "Every single person that is vaccinated stops the virus, and that's important. We need as many stops as we can [get]."
People must drive to the vaccination site to check if any instant or same-day appointments are available and can call 423-209-8383 to determine which vaccination sites are offering first-dose appointments on a given day.
People are encouraged to visit vaccine.hamiltontn.gov to make vaccine appointments online or visit vaccinefinder.org 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.
The call center is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Due to high call volume, callers may experience a busy signal and need to hang up and call back.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.