Task Force questions state’s vaccine rollout plan

Frustration bubbled over during the Hamblen County COVID-19 Task Force meeting Wednesday afternoon as local officials questioned if there was a plan in place from the state to effectively distribute vaccinations within the county.

Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, said he was not sure if the Hamblen County Health Department had the resources available to sustain long-term vaccinations of the entire county. He wondered if there were any long-term plans by the state that would be sustainable.

“It doesn’t seem the Health Department is set up for this,” Perry said. “Why are they so hell bent on doing this when they don’t have the facilities, parking and people?”

The meeting held little answers, but many questions as the county tries to navigate vaccinations that are now occurring statewide. Hamblen County is currently in phase 1a1, 1a2 and can vaccinate those 75 years and older. The health department for weeks has been vaccinating those groups, which consists of healthcare workers and first responders.

Sherrie Montgomery, director for the Hamblen County Health Department, said they are running into struggles at this point. They started giving second doses of vaccinations this week, while also continuing to give first doses.

There are currently two vaccines available at this point, Moderna and Pfizer. The health department initially were vaccinating with Moderna, but has since changed to Pfizer.

Montgomery said this week has brought challenges.

“We’re really running into this capacity issue,” she said.

A potential solution to helping with distribution, especially on a mass level, could be using different sites.

Tony Miksa, president of Walters State Community College, said the college has reached out to the state and told them if they needed space then the Great Smoky Mountain Expo Center and the campuses in Morristown, Sevier County and Greeneville were available.

“We’re willing to try,” he said.

But, he said there has been no feedback yet.

“Has there been talk about other locations as far as volume?” Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain asked.

Montgomery said there has been some discussion at the state level about utilizing providers like Walgreens, hospitals or colleges.

Officials at Morristown-Hamblen Healthcare Systems said last week they are in the process of seeking approval from the state to share vaccines with the health department.

David Purkey, task force member and former state commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said he shared the frustration of other task force members.

He said he tried to speak with state officials himself, but got little help.

“I get a little tired of being labeled a hot spot community and not getting support,” he said.

Perry asked if the health department was at capacity that they are not able to handle the load. He stressed he had no issues with the local health department and praised the work local workers are conducting. He said the issue goes higher.

Montgomery said early on the health department figured out they could handle 760 shots a week before other areas of service were affected.

The health department was given 1,950 shots to administer this week.

“I don’t think the doses we are given are based on performance or need,” Purkey said. “That’s the problem.”

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Click here for the state's vaccine eligibility tool.

Brittain said the task force could possibly come up with its own plan and see if the state endorses it. But, there were questions about whether the state would allow the county to come up with its own local plan.

Perry said what is being done right now at the state level is not viable.

“If the ship comes into the dock, they don’t have the people to unload it,” he said.