The winter weather gripping the nation is complicating COVID-19 vaccination efforts across the Chattanooga region, causing shipping delays and forcing some local health departments to cancel appointments on Tuesday.
Tennessee Health Commisioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said that the middle and western portions of the state hardest hit by the storm saw the largest disruptions in vaccination events, causing numerous clinics to have to cancel or postpone several days' worth of appointments.
"I wanted to reassure folks that if you were scheduled to get a vaccine appointment this week, you will be contacted about your rescheduled date. You don't have to start the process over," Piercey said during a news briefing on Tuesday, noting that the weather has caused some delays in shipping, as well.
Although the Hamilton County Health Department still received a shipment of new vaccines on Tuesday — which allowed the department to open additional first-dose appointments — the extreme temperatures forced the health department to cancel all COVID-19 testing and scheduled vaccinations for the day.
"When it's cold weather like this, it's extremely hard on our staff," said Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator. "Our staff has been great, but working in cold weather like this is taxing. We've done everything we can to make it more comfortable on staff — everything from extra clothing, to hand warmers to warming areas in the vaccine delivery areas — but at the end of the day, they're still outside."
People who had a Tuesday appointment at one of the health department vaccine locations were rescheduled to Feb. 25. Barnes said that those who need second doses are still well within the window of time for it to be effective.
All of the Northwest Georgia Health District facilities — which include the health departments in Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Walker and five other counties — were closed on Tuesday, resulting in everyone who was planning to get vaccinated there to have appointments rescheduled.
"We began doing this yesterday when we were anticipating a delayed opening this morning. Appointments are being rescheduled as soon as possible, typically within the next 48 hours," district spokesperson Logan Boss said Tuesday via email.
Boss said that the health departments only schedule appointments when they have vaccines on hand, so once the current stock is administered, there will be no new appointments until more shipments arrive.
"We have already been informed that weather-related supply-chain problems will delay and/or curtail subsequent vaccine shipments. To what extent, we do not yet know," he said. "Cancellations will continue as long as health departments are closed. We hope that all of ours will reopen tomorrow and that we do not have to do any more rescheduling."
In the North Georgia Health District, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, health departments delayed opening until 10 a.m. District spokesperson Jennifer King said in an email that "it seems we've successfully mitigated the impacts" of the weather on vaccine appointments by working people back into Tuesday's schedule.
Sabrina Novak, director of administrative services at the Hamilton County Health Department, said freezing temperatures also complicate handling the vaccine because staff must make sure doses don't freeze in the syringes while they're waiting to be injected into someone's arm.
"They've come up with some pretty low-tech, ingenious ways to do that. But those are the types of things that you don't necessarily think about until you're out trying to accomplish these efforts," Novak said.
Since the winter storm began sweeping the country, the health department has been receiving anticipated shipments of vaccines, though they've been arriving later than usual. For example, normally shipments arrive during the week, but last week's shipment didn't arrive until 7 p.m. on Friday, Novak said.
Though more delays could occur, she said that those won't affect already scheduled appointments, because the health department doesn't post appointments until staff have inspected each new batch of vaccine and placed it in the freezer.
Across Tennessee, Piercey said the wave of cancellations has left some health departments and clinics scrambling to find large groups of people to vaccinate quickly before the doses expire.
"Once you puncture the vial and draw up those doses, sometimes those doses can expire in a matter of hours," Piercey said. "So for those vaccines that are about to expire, we are very quickly looking for people to get those to, so we don't waste any doses if at all possible."
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