Hamilton County has administered more than 10,000 COVID-19 vaccines in the past week as the county expands the availability of the vaccine with more appointments and an additional vaccine site.
Data released Wednesday from the Hamilton County Health Department shows women continue to be overrepresented in the population that has received a dose while Black and Hispanic residents continue to be underrepresented in the data, compared to Hamilton County demographics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
As of Wednesday, 8% of doses have gone to Black residents and 2% have gone to Hispanic residents, percentages that remained steady since vaccine demographic data was first released at the end of January. U.S. Census population estimates predict around 19% of Hamilton County residents are Black and 6% are Hispanic.
Given the limited eligibility for the vaccine, though, comparing vaccine demographics to census data is not the best comparison. Nancy Kass, professor of bioethics and public health at Johns Hopkins University, said a better comparison would be to compare the vaccine demographic data to the demographics of the eligible population. Black and Hispanic residents may represent smaller percentages of the groups currently eligible than they do in the entire county.
Becky Barnes, administrator for the Hamilton County Health Department, said the department does not have demographic data for each eligible group.
Hamilton County is offering vaccines to people age 70 and older, as well as to members of phase 1a1 and 1a2 in the state's vaccination plan. People in these eligible phases include health care workers, first responders, staff and residents of long-term care facilities and student health providers, among others.
Local Hispanic residents were hit particularly hard in the early weeks of the pandemic, often because families did not have the resources to isolate when exposed and because their jobs were deemed essential and they could not work from home.
Area businesses whose employees could not work from home reported outbreaks, including in several of Chattanooga's poultry processing facilities and manufacturing facilities.
Many workers in these industries remain ineligible for the vaccine. Commercial food manufacturing workers and commercial agriculture workers will be eligible for the vaccine in phase 2a, which could be open in the summer, according to the Tennessee vaccination plan.
Eric Atkins, member of the Unity Group of Chattanooga, said health officials need to better prioritize the populations hardest hit from the virus.
"While there is merit that health care workers and first responders should be among the first to receive the vaccine, the majority of essential workers are being left behind in a worse fashion than the disparate treatment that was displayed in [COVID-19] testing accessibility and availability," Atkins said by email. "What you are saying is your manufacturing workers, delivery workers, transportation workers, service industry workers, poultry house workers and many others are on the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to vaccination and overall [COVID-19] relief measures."
Some states prioritized meatpacking and other manufacturing workers, given their inability to work from home and the outsized impact of the virus on these communities. Nebraska, for example, prioritized meatpacking facility workers in its distribution plan after the industry was hit hard by the pandemic.
In Maryland, a partnership between Baltimore City schools and Johns Hopkins allowed for 500 doses a week to be reserved for vaccinating teachers, Kass said.
Being equitable with vaccine distribution does not mean being less efficient, Kass said. The current vaccine supply is scarce enough that a targeted vaccination day for meat processing workers, for example, would use up all doses reserved for such an effort. If not, local health departments could give whatever doses are left over to people on a waiting list, not unlike when hundreds of people wait in line for the slim chance of getting a few extra tickets to a show or concert, Kass said.
"Sometimes it makes it sound like, should we be nice or should we get the public health crisis under control? These are not dichotomous options, they're very much in sync," Kass said. "But I think there are some old narratives that sort of sound like, should we get the job done or should we be charitable? That is not the equation here. We're in a total win-win."
Clinica Medicos began offering a limited supply of vaccines last week. The health department said churches and other community groups, such as the Chattanooga Housing Authority, are working on community outreach. The department has used churches to help with COVID-19 testing and influenza vaccinations and is expected to do something similar with the COVID-19 vaccine once supplies increase.
Residents without internet access or who have difficulty navigating the online appointment tool can call the Hamilton County Health Department to make an appointment. The health department has reserved some slots for phone appointments.
The county also opened a third vaccination site at Enterprise South Nature Park, with vaccinations starting there on Feb. 19.
This is the third week the county reported county-level demographic data. Officials have said the data is preliminary and may not fully reflect the number of doses given on a single day since providers have 72 hours to enter data into the state's reporting system.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.