ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — Health leaders are worried a lack of demand for vaccines in Northeast Tennessee will delay the population from reaching herd immunity.
Anyone 16 and older in Northeast Tennessee has now been eligible for vaccination for two weeks. Currently, officials say the majority of available vaccine appointments offered by Ballad Health and county health departments under the Northeast Regional Health Office aren’t being filled.
Northeast Tennessee’s first dose vaccination rate per capita is still ahead of the state average, according to TDH data. But the region’s lead has narrowed significantly since the end of February, and less than 30 percent of the population had received a first dose as of April 6.
On Wednesday, Ballad reported 127 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, an increase of 18 from their last report two days ago, and 44 more than they had two weeks ago.
Ballad’s scorecard report said 28 of those patients are currently being treated in intensive care units, with 14 on ventilators.
The latest case and hospitalization trends in the region have health officials pleading with the public to take advantage of open vaccine appointments and extended site hours.
Danielle Keasling, a Jonesborough resident pregnant with twins, found getting her shot at one of Ballad’s community vaccination centers to be a smooth process. She received her second dose of Pfizer at the Elizabethton site on Wednesday.
“You get your shot and it’s pretty quick, easy, painless,” said Keasling.
But the majority of patients eager to be vaccinated as soon as possible appears to be declining in the region.
“It’s been a disheartening week, I’ll be honest. As we’ve seen vaccine demand go down, we’ve seen cases and hospitalizations go up,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad’s chief infection prevention officer.
When 16+ eligibility first opened, Swift said the demand was high. But a couple weeks later, she says less than 50 percent of their available vaccine appointments are filled.
“Now that that first wave of people who are waiting is over, I literally can get you an appointment for tomorrow,” said Swift.
Local health departments are also seeing lower vaccine demand. Officials with the Northeast Regional Health Office told News Channel 11 about 40 percent of appointments are filled this week.
“We know many people are considering vaccination but have not made an appointment, so we are working on strategies to make it easier to get vaccinated. We also want to make sure residents of our region are getting accurate information, including that the vaccine is safe and effective and is the best way to build immunity against COVID-19,” Medical Director Dr. David Kirschke wrote in an email.
“With registration levels down, we are working on having vaccination events that do not require registration and also focusing on vaccinating vulnerable populations such as farmworkers and the homeless, and inmate/detainees in jails,” Kirschke wrote.
In Sullivan County, Emergency Response Coordinator Mark Moody says he’s disappointed in the decreased volume of people coming to their health department sites as well.
“We just need people to come get vaccinated. Our numbers are dropping off some. There’s plenty of vaccine available,” said Moody.
At this point, Swift says the region isn’t close to herd immunity
“We need to reach people who don’t have the urgency, think maybe they’ll get it at some point. We really need those people to start making their appointments and coming in and getting vaccine,” she said.
To make appointments more accessible to groups like young professionals and high school students, Ballad officials have extended hours at their Kingsport and Elizabethton vaccination sites.
The Elizabethton center is open for first dose appointments Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Kingsport’s center is open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays.