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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Hamilton County Health Department's Enterprise South COVID vaccination distribution area on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

This story was updated on Thursday, March 18, 2021, at 7:36 p.m. with additional information.

All Hamilton County residents age 55 and up are now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the county effective immediately, according to a Thursday announcement from the Hamilton County Health Department.

The county's move to expand eligibility to a younger age bracket applies to all providers in Hamilton County, including pharmacies, that are currently offering vaccines.

Health department officials said in a news release that the expansion is due to many vaccine appointments going unfilled.

"Many first dose appointments are currently available for various days, and the health department does not want them to go unused," reads a news release announcing the change on Thursday.

(READ MORE: Tennessee vaccination rate remains low as efforts intensify to round up more takers)

It's been less than two weeks since the county and state began vaccinating people in Phase 1c, which is the largest phase yet under the state's vaccination plan. The Tennessee Department of Health estimates that more than 1.1 million Tennesseans have a chronic condition that deems them eligible for vaccination in that group.

Unfilled appointments indicate that many of those people, who are at greater risk for COVID-19 hospitalization and death, are not rushing to be vaccinated.

Fernando Urrego, Hamilton County's interim health officer, said during a livestream on Thursday that opening the age bracket is an attempt to balance the priority of vaccinating the individuals at highest risk while making sure appointments don't go unfilled.

Hamilton County's move is a departure from other Tennessee counties, which are offering vaccines to those who qualify based on age alone to residents age 65 and up.

Other eligible groups in Hamilton County as well as surrounding Tennessee counties are residents and workers who fall under Phases 1a1, 1a2, 1b, 1c of the state vaccination plan. Those phases include health care workers, teachers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff and parents of medically fragile children.

So far, 21.8% of Hamilton County residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 11.3% of residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Meigs County is the only county in the Chattanooga region with a higher percentage of its population fully vaccinated, at 14.1%. Grundy County is the lowest, with 6.1% fully vaccinated, according to the department of health.

Urrego encouraged residents 16 and older to talk to their doctor to determine if they have a condition that deems them eligible.

"Chronic conditions affect a disproportionate number of people in our county compared to the nation. In fact, eight of the 10 leading causes of death are due to chronic illnesses," Urrego said. "Chronic medical conditions included in this phase are many, and include heart and lung issues, in addition to obesity."

On the other hand, he said the unfilled appointments are a positive sign that vaccines are more readily available than during the early days of the vaccination campaign as supplies increase and more providers come online to administer vaccines.

Urrego said that the presence of new, more contagious variants heighten the urgency to vaccinate residents as quickly as possible.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County confirms coronavirus variant is spreading locally)

The weekly average for new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Hamilton County is much lower now than during the winter surge, but the county risks regressing if people relax precaution measures and not enough residents get vaccinated, Urrego said.

"The level of transmission remains high, and the falling case numbers have plateaued. Additionally, we have seen some clusters that we are monitoring closely," he said, adding that another coronavirus-related child death was also reported in the county Thursday.

"These numbers are a reminder that we must remain vigilant," Urrego said. "It's now a race between the emergence of new variants and getting vaccines into the arms."

People in the eligible phases can visit vaccine.hamiltontn.gov to make their appointment online, and the website vaccinefinder.org lists other locations in the area that are approved to administer vaccines.

Those who do not have access to the internet can call the appointment call the health department to make an appointment over the phone:

- First dose appointments: 423-209-5398

- Second dose appointments: 423-209-5399

- Spanish appointment line: 423-209-5384

All three call center lines are open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the news release. Callers may experience a busy signal and need to hang up and call back several times due to high call volumes.

The health department's general COVID-19 hotline — 423-209-8383 — is available to connect people to vaccine and testing resources. Hotline hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bilingual representatives are available.

"Let's win this race," Urrego said. "We have three very safe and effective vaccines. Get vaccinated when your turn is up and continue masking and physically distancing until we crossed the finish line."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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