Tennessee counties have been moving to a last-minute appointment system for the COVID-19 vaccine. While being summoned to get a shot has been a pleasant surprise for many seniors, it also has the potential to make the distribution more uneven.
Sometimes the lead time really is just a matter of minutes, which was the case for David Gibbs, 86. He was happy to race down to a church in Lebanon hosting Wilson County’s drive-thru vaccinations.
“So they called about 35-40 minutes ago and said if I could be up here by 3:30 we could have our shots, and I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ I just hope I didn’t get no tickets on the way,” he said with a laugh.
Most of Tennessee’s local health departments started out having people go online to claim an appointment time. That was abandoned a few weeks in, partly because the state has no guarantee how many doses will come from manufacturers. That meant rescheduling appointments if there wasn’t enough vaccine.
Also, some people wouldn’t show up their appointments, resulting in extra doses that needed to be used before they spoiled.
The state-run health departments — which in Middle Tennessee includes everyone outside Nashville — moved to a system where people put their name on a waiting list and then just wait for a call.
And that list can appear impossibly long. Sharon Erdman of Mount Juliet saw online there were 900 people in front of her and her husband.
“I thought we’re never going to get in until maybe February,” she says. “I was just shocked when I got the call this morning to come today. I said, ‘Be right there.’ ”
But not everyone is so nimble.
Some seniors can no longer drive and would need more time to hitch a ride. Some might have to use public transportation, which adds another layer of complication since most county vaccination sites are geared toward people in cars.
Brian Haile with Neighborhood Health, a system of nonprofit clinics in Middle Tennessee, says local health departments need a more equitable solution.
“Otherwise, we’re just going to tell people, ‘If you don’t have car keys, you don’t get a vaccine.’ And that’s inherently unfair,” he says.
Already, statewide statistics on COVID vaccinations are revealing some of the same disparities that have long persisted in health care, which, Haile says, indicates that well-off, mostly white people are having an easier time finding their way to the front of the line.