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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Health Department worker Megan Robbins helps deliver a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine near the Hubert Fry Center at the Tennessee Riverpark on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

COVID-19 vaccines in Tennessee will no longer be administered on a first-come, first-served basis as the state plans to launch an online scheduling system next week.

Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey announced the plan Friday, calling it an effort to curb the large numbers of people waiting in line for hours only to be turned away due to exhausted supplies.

"We realized that it's a little bit more of a hurdle on the front end to do the online scheduling, but I think — not only for staff and health departments, but certainly the public at large — that will be a much more satisfying system than sitting around for several hours, and may or may not get a dose," Piercey said during a news conference Friday.

Piercey did not offer additional details as to when exactly the online scheduling system will launch or how it would work.

The Hamilton County Health Department confirmed Friday it will use a similar system, though further details were not provided.

Local demand for vaccines has caused long lines in the county and other areas of the state. In Hamilton County, the health department has run out of doses within hours since expanding eligibility to people aged 75 or older. On Wednesday, the department closed the line to its drive-thru site off Amnicola Highway just after 6 a.m., three hours before vaccinations began for the approximately 1,000 doses available that day.

The long lines and short supply left many residents frustrated, and health officials urged patience as the county waits for another shipment of vaccines. During a Wednesday call with statewide nonprofit leaders, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, medical director for the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program in the state health department, said local health departments should receive more doses early next week.

The online scheduling system will be the latest online tool recently added to the Tennessee Department of Health Website aimed at reducing confusion and providing information around vaccinations. On Tuesday, the state launched an online tool to help Tennesseans know if and when they will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Vaccine rollout comes as the pandemic rages across the nation. As of Friday, Tennessee reported 6,369 new COVID-19 cases, 3,249 current hospitalizations and 126 new deaths for a total of at least 7,618 deaths since the pandemic began. The state is currently averaging 7,686 new cases a day over the past week.

In Hamilton County, the health department reported 655 new cases and 4,589 active cases Friday, both records. Along with 208 hospitalizations, 65 people are in the intensive care unit because of the virus, another record. The county is averaging 515 new cases a day in the past week, a record, and a positivity rate of around 30% on new tests in the past week.

New case counts are trending upward in the past week, the first indication of a surge following the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Hospitalization numbers remain elevated, though a spike in hospitalizations often follows several weeks after a spike in new cases. A surge in deaths follows a few weeks later, as seen during December when 115 county residents died following a November surge.

Baylor School research scientists said this week they believe the new, seemingly more contagious U.K. COVID-19 variant is in the Chattanooga region. The scientists detected virus mutations in the samples studied at their lab. Their findings, if confirmed, would mean the variant has been circulating in Southeast Tennessee since before it was formally identified in the United States.

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

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