Vaccine uptake plummets in Northeast Tennessee as supply far outstrips demand

Local Coronavirus Coverage

The number of Northeast Tennesseans getting a first dose of COVID vaccine has plummeted in the past several weeks despite more availability than ever.

Weekly first-dose vaccinations less than half the early April total

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As COVID vaccine supply has increased and eligibility criteria broadened this month, the number of Northeast Tennesseans getting a first dose has fallen to its lowest level in several months.

“When we opened it up to 16 and older no restrictions or comorbidities or anything the demand actually went way, way down,” Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD) Emergency Response Coordinator Mark Moody told News Channel 11 Monday.

It hasn’t been for lack of effort on the part of health departments, Ballad Health and other vaccine providers around the region. They’ve plastered social media and websites with messages encouraging people to get vaccinated — to little avail.

Across seven Northeast Tennessee counties, the weekly total of first doses administered averaged of a little more than 8,000 between the week ending Feb. 5 and that ending March 5.

A supply bump brought those figures above 13,000 the next two weeks, and the weeks ending March 26 and April 2 saw the highest regional totals to date — 15,816 and 15,218.

The number of Northeast Tennesseans getting a first dose of COVID vaccine has plummeted in the past several weeks despite more availability than ever.

It’s been all downhill in the three weeks since. Only about 42 percent as many people got first shots the week ending last Friday as had gotten jabs three weeks earlier.

With the exception of the winter storm week ending Feb. 26, it was the lowest weekly total since January.

The tailspin in demand has left SCRHD’s medical director a bit frustrated. Dr. Stephen May said a high percentage of vaccine coverage is the key to returning to a relatively normal life with fewer restrictions.

“Common sense has got to be the driver for this, and I think there’s way too much politics and invalid science that’s being propagated,” May said.

Asked when he thought Sullivan County would reach the tipping point of more supply than demand, Moody said “I’m at that now.

“I have 10,000 doses of (Johnson & Johnson) and I think about 12 or 13,000 doses of Pfizer, including second doses. Right now the supply well exceeds the demand.”

And as national media speculate about when that point will come for the country, it’s already arrived in Tennessee.

Northeast Regional Health Office (NERHO) spokesperson Kristen Spencer said via email Monday that per the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) there is plenty of supply regardless of where a vaccine provider operates in the Volunteer State.

“As vaccine supply exceeds demand in Tennessee, all 95 counties are being provided with the quantities of vaccines requested and counties are no longer held to population and social-vulnerability index-based allocation limits,” Spencer wrote.

Health departments to target hard to reach groups

Moody said with plenty of availability among pharmacies, Ballad Health, physician groups and other vaccine partners, SCRHD will wind down its mass vaccination site at Whitetop and begin a more targeted approach.

“We will go to a strike team format and eventually we will be giving shots by appointment at the two health departments,” Moody said.

“We may target some specific industries or big factories or large employers and come to them and set up a vaccination clinic on site at their place.”

That transition from Whitetop will be final May 21, and Pfizer first doses will cease this Friday to account for the three-week lag before the second dose. Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be administered there, along with second Pfizer doses, through the 21st.

The change isn’t happening in isolation. Moody said representatives from NERHO, Ballad Health and Southwest Virginia meet frequently as part of the “Mountain Empire Public Health Emergency Coordination” group.

SCRHD’s May said that team has realized that other vaccine providers, from Ballad and pharmacies to large physician groups, have more than enough capacity and outreach ability to meet the demand of people who can make their way to appointments and are eager to get vaccinated.

That leaves the health department with a more precise mission in this next phase of trying to reach a high level of vaccination coverage.

“So, first get to the homebound, get to the homeless, get to those who can’t get out and get the vaccine, bring the vaccine to them,” May said.

“Early on we didn’t have the choice and the goal was to get out as much vaccine as we could in a day,” he said. “Now that the demand is not there we need to target those that we missed in the first round and provide that vaccine in a convenient forum that’s easy for them to receive.”

No ‘magic phrase’ to overcome vaccine hesitancy

May mentioned what he called the more transmissible UK variant’s “ubiquitous” presence in Northeast Tennessee at this point. He said that has contributed to a steady rise in cases in the past month.

“This truly is a footrace,” he said. “It’s a footrace of the variants versus the vaccine, and the sooner we get more vaccine out and can curb transmission in these younger age groups the sooner I think we can start to see further decline in our disease transmission.”

May said he’d like to produce some narrative that would shift a sizable portion of vaccine-hesitant people into the vaccinated camp.

“I’m like everybody else in public health,” he said. “We wish we did have that magic phrase and that magic convincing dialogue that can encourage vaccination,” he said.

“Those of us in public health know that that’s the ultimate answer over time.”

May said he’s not confident such an answer is out there but said he and his colleagues in the field are “just as anxious as anyone else to get out of this pandemic phase and return life back to normal.”

This “vaccine hesitancy” is seen even in the private sector.

“I’m extremely concerned about the vaccine hesitancy, we have plenty of vaccines in the region, whether it be through Ballad, the health department’s of pharmacies and unfortunately that vaccine is not moving very fast anymore,” Chief Infection Prevention Officer for Ballad Health Jamie Swift said.

Swift told News Channel 11 that Ballad Health aims to hear from the vaccine hesitant community to work through the issues.

“Now we’re trying to reach those people, and we want to hear from them. We want to hear what their questions are their concerns, their hesitancies, and try to meet people where they’re at, whether that’s us coming out and vaccinating, you know, it really is a concern that we’ve stalled, and if we don’t get more vaccine coverage, we’re setting ourselves up for several more weeks to months of this,” she said.

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