State expands vaccine distribution

Kelli Branam, Loudon County Emergency Management Agency director, takes down information from someone waiting in line Friday to get their COVID-19 vaccination.

The Tennessee Department of Health is putting a COVID-19 vaccination focus on rural and underserved areas through a partnership with pharmacies and community health clinics.

More than 100 new state locations announced include Cherokee Health Systems, Preferred Pharmacy, Vistara Pharmacy and Rocky Top Pharmacy in Loudon County.

“We’re eager to launch these partnerships to help bring the vital resource of COVID-19 vaccines to Tennesseans in communities most vulnerable to serious and lasting social and economic challenges due to the pandemic,” Lisa Piercey, Department of Health commissioner, said in a release. “These pharmacies and clinics are easily accessible to Tennesseans who have barriers to receiving health care, like lack of transportation or health insurance. We’re bringing COVID-19 vaccines to familiar and convenient locations for residents of these communities to receive their vaccinations.”

Sites statewide include 24 federally qualified health centers, rural health clinics and community health centers, 64 local pharmacies and 20 chain pharmacies.

Cherokee Health Systems received a shipment of 100 Moderna vaccines Jan. 26 and within a day filled the list for a Tuesday vaccination event.

“We were delighted to receive vaccines and to receive it earlier than we had anticipated,” Suzanne Bailey, chief operating officer, said. “We were previously expecting to receive the vaccine in March, maybe even early April, so we have been working really aggressively to get the vaccine out of freezers and into arms. We’ve certainly seen a lot of demand in the community for folks to get the vaccine. We are completely booked in Lenoir City for the vaccine. In fact, all of our finalized events in East Tennessee are booked at this point, but we are planning some additional events and will be posting that information soon.”

Bailey said Cherokee indicated to the state it would like a second shipment.

“I think as a health center our mission is to enhance access to health care, particularly to preventative health care, and to really do that in a way that improves access to rural and other underserved population,” she said. “It really is our mission to target those who are most vulnerable or who might not have access to the vaccine elsewhere.”

Those seeking a vaccination can go to www.cherokeehealth.com to get on a waiting list. Call volume has increased “significantly” since the news Cherokee offered vaccinations.

Rocky Top Pharmacy received 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine Jan. 27, which were gone by Jan. 30, Charlie Coscia, pharmacist and owner, said.

“It’s been a nightmare, we’ve just been inundated with people,” Coscia said. “We just try to obviously stick to the guidelines to vaccinate the older people — and, of course, I’m online with the Department of Health database to enter those people, those people that have to be entered into the system and then that subtracts away from my inventory and then I try to reorder. I’m trying to reorder right now, I just haven’t got my second batch yet.”

Call volume has been to the point that a voicemail was set up, he said.

“Right now we’re waiting to get some inventory in, so I’m not really taking any names because we already have gotten an extensive list and then we want to revaccinate the ones we’ve already vaccinated,” Coscia said. “We’re not going to hold doses back or anything like that. We’re going to vaccinate everybody that we can, but the bottom line is I just have to get it. It’s a huge deal getting the vaccine out. That many vaccines, so many people, you can tell the logistics are a little struggling.

“We’ve had 100 calls a day and don’t know when we’re going to get it back in,” he added. “We established that list and then we still get so many calls. Heck, I could have given 2,000 doses by now probably, but just getting it in is the key.”

He has no idea when another shipment could come.

COVID location moved

Loudon County Health Department began giving vaccinations off-site Feb. 1 at Loudon Municipal Park. Vaccinations are 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 9-11 a.m. Tuesday and Thursday. COVID-19 tests are still 1:30-3:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the health department.

“It’s just one lane of traffic coming in and then you’re able to exit normal. It’s great,” Teresa Harrill, health department director, said. “… The wait time has not been long at all. It’s just flowing pretty fast because basically you’ve got the first stop check to make sure they got what they need, pull up and get your second. Traffic, the convenience of not having to get out of their car, and the facility out there is so spacious.

“We’re able to use up in the concession stand,” she added. “We’ve got girls stationed up there so basically they come down and get the papers, they can actually enter in TennIIS state immunization program so all that’s done on site in real time.”

Harrill said 920 second doses of Moderna were given last week. As of Friday, the department has administered 2,390 vaccinations.

“The kicker (this) week, (this) week we’ll be doing first doses,” Harrill said. “We’ve had one tiny glitch that the state sent us Pfizer vaccines — we’ve been doing Moderna — but we have Pfizer (this) week where we’ll do 480 first doses of Pfizer and then the next week we’ll go back to Moderna.”

Harrill said those getting Pfizer will get the same for a second dose.

Vaccination shipments have been coming in more regularly.

Loudon County is still in phases 1a1 and 1a2, Harrill said. She estimated the next phase may not come until March.

“Once we complete the waiting list then we can move,” she said. “Morgan County’s already moved to 1aC and actually 2, but they’re a smaller county. We have got lots of Tellico Village 75+ that we’ve got to (do). But we’re knocking the waiting list down because what we’re finding when it said 6,000 on the waiting list, once we got in there in the regional office cleaned up the waiting list, there were so many duplicates. There was a lot of duplicates, then a lot of people’s already had it so it’s not as bad as what we had first thought.”

“I guess the long-term plan for all of this is that at some point, I mean we’re going to continue to be off-site, but at some point months down the road we will just be assisting National Guard doing it,” Harrill said. “I mean that’s what the plan is through the state. We’ve got two Guard folks now but they’re admin people, not medics. The hope is from what we’ve been told from the regional office is we’ll have medics and we’ll just have our nurse take the vaccine, get it going and so that’s kind of the long-term plan. Loudon’s ahead of the game because when I’m on my call with the 15 other counties, our emergency preparedness person at the regional office is saying, ‘OK counties, you’ve got to come up with an off-site pod’.”