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Knox County Plans to Vaccinate 1,500 People Daily at New Mass Vaccination Site

Claire Heddles

Knox County Health Department has begun vaccinating about five hundred people a day at a former Food City building in Knoxville. County health director Dr. Martha Buchanan said the plan is to administer 1,500 vaccines a day by next month. She said it takes about seven minutes from when someone arrives at the vaccination site to receive a shot and be moved to a post-vaccination waiting area.

The county plans to hold specialized events for frail populations and non-English speaking communities on Mondays at the site. Larger vaccine clinics will be on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Vaccinations are by appointment only through the county’s waitlist. 

As of Wednesday, the county health department said there were 44,000 people on its COVID vaccination waitlist. However, up to 90% of those on the list may no longer need a vaccine. During a tour of the new clinic, Buchanan said most people the county calls from the waitlist have already been vaccinated elsewhere. She asked people who've been vaccinated elsewhere to take themselves off the county's waitlist by calling (865) 215 - 5555 or 311.

"I think last week to fill 400 slots we had to reach out to about 4,000 different people," Buchanan said. "Please please please if you've gotten vaccinated somewhere else, we're thrilled that you did, but please take yourself off our waitlist.”

While Knox County health officials work to sort through the tens of thousands of people on its waitlist, only half of vaccine appointments are full in rural East Tennessee counties, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The state health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, said this week just 20% of vaccine appointments are full in rural West Tennessee counties. 

Hamblen, Claiborne, Hancock and other East Tennessee counties all have vaccine appointments open this week, according to the state’s scheduling website. Those over the age of 16 with a high-risk health condition are eligible to get a vaccine in any county, regardless of residence; the only caveat is the second dose must be administered in the same county as the first.

Knox County Health director Martha Buchanan said they're not actively encouraging people to go to other counties, but it is an option. 

"If somebody wants to go to another county to get vaccinated, they certainly can, but then they need to go back there to get their second dose," Buchanan said. "We're happy to serve anybody from any county here, and I know they will also serve people from other counties."

There are also independent and national chain pharmacies offering vaccine appointments, but most appointments are full within hours of becoming available. Unlike in rural counties, demand is still outpacing supply in Knox County. 

Tennessee has distributed just 71% of the vaccines the federal government has allocated to the state. This puts the state 47th in the country in rate of vaccine administration. The state's health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, said this week she attributes the statistic in part to the low-uptake in rural counties, as well as to the ice storms last month and instances of vaccine waste both in Shelby County and Knox County.

As the vaccine becomes widely available, Piercey said she said Tennessee is likely to remain at the bottom of the country's vaccine administration rankings, especially if interest in getting vaccinated remains low in rural counties.

The state plans to offer vaccines to all Tennessee residents who want them by the Biden administration's May 1 goal. Piercey said a recent memo from the federal government indicated that Tennessee will receive a significant increase in vaccine allocation at the end of March, and again at the begining of April.