BRISTOL, Tenn. — Just a handful of people were in line Wednesday morning at Whitetop Creek Park during a six-hour COVID-19 vaccination clinic — a mere trickle compared to the miles-long lines seen over the winter.
Contrast that with Wednesday’s announcement that Ballad Health was revisiting its surge plans after the number of COVID-19-infected inpatients climbed to 127, including 28 in intensive care units. The last time the regional health system treated that many patients was Jan. 31, as the region reeled from its deadliest month yet.
While Tennessee is now making vaccine available to anyone over the age of 16, turnout at some clinics has diminished. Dr. Stephen May, medical director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, conceded that the response hasn’t been overwhelming in what he terms a “race” to get people vaccinated.
“I think the end of the pandemic lies with getting vaccine out and we have plenty of vaccine and plenty of appointment slots to get vaccine out,” May said Wednesday. “In the meantime, we’ve still got to practice the appropriate safety measures — wearing a mask, safe distancing, avoiding large crowds — particularly if you’re not vaccinated — if we’re to get to the end of this pandemic.”
About 31% of Sullivan’s total population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and about 20% are fully vaccinated, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. However, the daily turnout to receive shots has declined over the past two weeks, state figures show.
The Sullivan County Health Department has scheduled another clinic at Whitetop Creek Park on Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., with appointments requested but not required. Additional clinics are planned during those same times Thursday and Friday at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium, where no appointment is necessary.
The Health Department is also developing plans to make vaccine more available.
“It’s a lot harder to reach population groups that have to work during the week. We’re looking at extended hours, weekend hours and we just implemented the statewide vaccine scheduler that’s online for those who are tech savvy. They can do it online; it’s just like scheduling for concert tickets and they send the appointment information to your smartphone,” May said.
Virus cases are rising in the more populous parts of the region with Sullivan County reporting 208 new cases during the past seven days, over 470 active cases and a seven-day COVID testing positivity average approaching 17%, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Sullivan added an average of 36 new cases per day during the past 14 days.
Washington County, Tennessee’s positivity rate was even higher, at 17.6%, with 202 new cases this week, nearly 400 active cases and an average of nearly 35 new cases daily over the past two weeks. About 21% of the county’s residents are fully immunized against the virus, the highest rate in Northeast Tennessee.
Carter County was at 14.9% positivity with 60 new cases while less than 15% of its residents are fully vaccinated.
The region’s positivity average was 13.9% Wednesday.
New case rates remain much lower across Southwest Virginia, with Washington County reporting 41 new cases and Tazewell County 27. The positivity rate across the Mount Rogers Health District was 12.7%, 8.1% in LENOWISCO and 5.1% in Cumberland Plateau, while the state rate was 6.2%.
May said this resurgence is “very concerning.”
“It [virus] will continue to make people sick and will continue to kill people until we get the appropriate groups vaccinated. It’s going to be very difficult to relax those safety measures with our current rate of disease. And the way to turn it around is getting a vaccine,” May said.
Ballad Health announced Wednesday it is expanding hours for its community vaccination centers in Elizabethton and Kingsport, according to a written statement. Kingsport’s center is now open from 2-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 8 a.m.-noon Fridays, while the Elizabethton center is open from 3-8 p.m. Monday-Friday.
The health system’s vaccine center in Abingdon, Virginia, will maintain its current hours by appointment and is now open to all over the age of 16 — regardless of contributing health conditions — bringing vaccine centers in the commonwealth in step with their Tennessee counterparts.
All Ballad vaccination centers require appointments.
“For many people, limiting vaccine appointment times to daytime hours, when they’re working or otherwise unavailable, makes this potentially lifesaving shot inaccessible — and our goal is to make the vaccine easy to receive and the process as convenient as possible,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad’s chief infection prevention officer.
The health system is imploring people to get the vaccine as soon as possible.
“With COVID-19 cases rising again regionally and nationally, we have to make vaccines equally available to everyone and encourage all eligible community members to get theirs as quickly as possible,” Swift said. “Getting shots in arms is crucial if we’re to stave off another surge.”