In recent months, Knoxville made headlines in infamy for the highest COVID-19 case counts per population in the country — in fact, some of the highest in the world.
Since December, the Knox County Health Department, alongside particular pharmacies and hospitals, has shifted much of its focus to administering doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to at-risk groups and frontline workers.
As of last Monday, Knox County had vaccinated about 3% of the population — 14,000 people. KCHD in particular has received 10,000 doses since December and administered 4,000 of those.
During KCHD’s first vaccination clinic for residents over 75 years of age and older, appointments were not available and residents had to wait in line in-person to be vaccinated. However, KCHD has now created an online appointment reservation system, which took over a week to build. Residents can also reserve their spot by calling KCHD 865-215-5555, although online reservation is preferred.
Presently, Knox County is vaccinating those eligible under Phase 1a1 and 1a2 — which include frontline healthcare workers, disabled adults and outpatient healthcare workers with direct exposure to patients — as well residents 75 and over. A complete list of those eligible under these two phases is available on Knox County’s website.
975 vaccination appointments for Friday, Jan. 22 were filled in just an hour on Jan. 14. The next day, KCHD added 150 appointments for Jan. 19, 20 and 25, all of which were full by the end of the day.
Last week, KCHD traveled to residents’ homes to vaccinate citizens with intellectual and physical disabilities, Director of KCHD Dr. Martha Buchanan said.
“It just takes a little more time to get these folks vaccinated,” Buchanan said. “We’re very happy to do it, but this week was a week of no big, large clinics but some smaller clinics to get those very high risk folks vaccinated.”
KCHD has only had to waste one dose of the COVID vaccine; a technological malfunction caused a syringe to break, and one vaccine dose could not be administered.
“That was the only time that we’ve had to waste a dose,” Buchanan said. “That was unfortunate. It was something experienced by many others who received similar products. We’ve since adjusted our process so that doesn’t happen anymore, and we have not had to waste a dose because we didn’t have an arm to put it in.”
KCHD staff is experienced in managing vaccines, Buchanan said, as the department wastes very few vaccine doses of any kind during its annual school vaccination clinics.
“They understand our goal, and they believe in the goal of not wasting a dose, because it’s such a precious commodity,” Buchanan said.
While KCHD does not have a waiting list for vaccines that may be leftover at the end of the day, the department has been administering those doses to healthcare workers at the site who have not yet been vaccinated or frontline workers and first responders who are able to be at the vaccination site within an hour.
KCHD receives weekly vaccine shipments, but the number of vaccines that will be delivered each week is unknown and variable. Last week, KCHD received 5,200, 975 of which are designated for first doses.
As Buchanan said, demand for vaccines will outpace supply for the foreseeable future. As the number of available doses increase, vaccines will become available at more locations — including through primary care providers and general pharmacies — but there’s not a timeline dictating when this will occur.
“We know this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many of you out there who still want vaccines, and we continue to put additional opportunities out there as we receive more vaccines,” Buchanan said.
During last Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting, Mayor Glenn Jacobs encouraged residents to be cognizant of the fact that Knox County’s vaccine rollout may manifest differently than other Tennessee counties for several reasons, including its urban population and status as one of six Tennessee counties not directly under state vaccine control. Instead, Knox County’s health department and local government are largely in charge of local health measures but work closely with the Tennessee Department of Health.
“The demand is somewhat different, and the uptake here is much higher than it has been in other counties, so again, our people here are doing a great job,” Jacobs said. “It’s just a different dynamic that an urban county faces compared to some of the smaller rural counties.”
In the mean time, as cases and deaths still continue to rise in Knox County, Buchanan encourages all local residents to continue taking precautions, such as social distancing, wearing masks, limiting close contacts and regularly washing hands.