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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / LPN Kristin Dinus looks through paperwork before administering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at the Hamilton County Health Department's new COVID Vaccination POD at the CARTA Bus Terminal on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The decision to expand Hamilton County's COVID-19 vaccine effort to include teachers and people age 65 and older next week makes tens of thousands more people eligible for the shots, despite existing demand remaining high.

Around 65,800 people ages 65 and older live in Hamilton County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 19,911 people age 65 and older had already been vaccinated, meaning 46,000 people remain or will be newly eligible based on age for the vaccine but have not yet received a dose.

This total does not include the health care workers and first responders in phases 1a1 and 1a2, who have been eligible since December, but may not have received a vaccine yet, or phase 1b workers who become eligible Monday. The county health department was not able to provide an estimate of the size of Hamilton County's 1b population, which includes child care workers, pre-school as well as K-12 teachers, school staff and school bus drivers.

The county health department reported 9,947 vaccinations in the past week, including first and second dose shots. Through Feb. 14, the health department was giving an average of around 850 new first dose vaccines a day over the previous seven days.

The seven-day average has more than doubled in recent weeks, up from around 400 doses a week at the end of January. However, at the current vaccination rate of 850 first doses a day, it would take nearly eight weeks to vaccinate all remaining and eligible Hamilton County residents age 65 and older.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news briefing Tuesday that the state is expecting about a 10% bump in first dose vaccine supplies for next week and the following two weeks, amounting to roughly 110,000 to 112,000 first-round doses each week for the whole state.

Even though vaccine supply is slowly increasing, Piercey said the number of doses available is still "barely scratching the surface" once they're allocated to the state's 95 counties, especially in the larger metro counties such as Hamilton.

"It just takes longer to get through those populations, and even though those counties are getting population-based allocations, it's still nowhere close to meeting the demand," she said.

The total number of staff in Hamilton County Schools is about 5,700, said communications officer Cody Patterson, and there are about 2,800 full-time teachers in the district, according to the district's website.

Local teachers petitioned the health department to expand eligibility to include them, and some traveled long distances to get a dose in counties that had already opened up vaccine appointments for teachers.

Last month, while announcing their spring reopening plan, district officials said their employee health provider, One-to-One Health, was poised to vaccinate all Hamilton County teachers if and when vaccines became available. However, Patterson said that plan had not yet been approved by the Tennessee Department of Health as of Wednesday.

The state department of health did not respond to a request for information about the plan or why it has not been approved. Metro Nashville Public Schools is working with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and TriStar Health to provide doses to its teachers.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said county teachers began making appointments to get vaccinated as soon as they became available. With people age 65 and older also signing up, not all teachers have been able to make appointments, but they are happy to have the option.

"They're trying to do them where it won't inconvenience school, so some of them have been able to get after-school and Saturday and Sunday appointments until those were depleted," Omarkhail said.

Piercey said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Tennessee Department of Health do not consider vaccination a prerequisite for teachers to return to the classroom.

During the first weeks of vaccine distribution, Hamilton County officials said they would move phases when appointments were going unused and demand in that category was diminished. In Tennessee, 89 of the state's 95 counties are run by the Tennessee Department of Health, and the remaining six metro counties — Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Sullivan, Knox and Hamilton — partner with the department of health but operate on their own.

However, Hamilton County has opted to move with the state twice in the past two weeks — first in expanding eligibility to age 70 and older, then on Tuesday to include phase 1b and residents ages 65 and older — despite local demand for doses remaining high.

Becky Barnes, administrator for the Hamilton County Health Department, said last week her department would continue following guidance from the state department of health. Tennessee's metro counties were granted permission to determine their own phases but Barnes said moving together decreases misunderstandings or confusion among residents.

The county continues to see declining cases and lower levels of hospitalizations than previous months. On Wednesday, the county health department reported 62 hospitalizations and 15 people in intensive care with the virus. The county is averaging 73 new cases a day in the past week, the lowest that figure has been since Oct. 7, 2020.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite. Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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