Confusion sparks as vaccine distribution takes off in Shelby County

Updated: Dec. 29, 2020 at 9:55 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - UPDATE -- On December 30, the Tennessee Department of Health updated the coronavirus vaccine plan for the state. Here’s a chart breaking down the new plan.

Tenn. COVID-19 Vaccine Plan
Tenn. COVID-19 Vaccine Plan(Source: Tennessee Department of Health)


Just two days into it, there is already confusion about Shelby County’s COVID-19 vaccination program. Right now, only first responders and healthcare workers are supposed to receive the vaccine. So why were senior citizens showing up in droves?


A line of cars stretched from Lindenwood Christian Church down Union Avenue on Tuesday. Folks waited for hours to get the vaccine, only to get turned away by the same health department they say told them to come get vaccinated.

”Everyone doesn’t need to go to these health department vaccination sites,” said Memphis City Councilman Dr. Jeff Warren, who also serves on the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force. “These are for our first responders right now.”

Warren isn’t sure how the miscommunication started, but it snowballed.

“Evidently, other people got in the line, and they got vaccinated and then started calling or texting people,” said Warren.

The Shelby County Health Department began giving vaccinations to first responders and health care workers Monday at two sites: Sycamore View out east and Lindenwood Christian Church in Midtown.

Within 24 hours of the first dose, many in line were ordinary citizens who’d heard from friends, family and even health department employees they could get the vaccine, too.

Seventy-four-year-old Mary Ann Chism heard from a friend that vaccinations were available for anyone who wanted one at the Lindenwood location. She said she even called the health department to confirm that and was told by the woman on the phone, it was true. So she and her husband drove to Midtown and waited in line for two hours only to get turned away.

”Why weren’t there people out there with signs or something?” she asked. “And why did an employee tell me if I was over 65 I could go down there and get a vaccine?”

WMC Action News Five received an email from Leslie Baer, who called it a fiasco. He said his brother and sister and their spouses received the vaccine, but he and his 90-year-old mother, who were next in line, were told to leave. No one in his family, said Baer, is a first responder.

“The rules changed and it was the luck of the draw who walked up to your car window,” he said. “Security was not on the same page. It was very frustrating.”

Janice Kilpatrick called the WMC Action News 5 newsroom after she waited three hours in line at Lindenwood. When she got up to the tent where they were administering the doses, Kilpatrick said the medical staff told them they had no vaccine to give them, the rest of the vaccines were for first responders.

“Right now, we don’t have enough vaccine to get all the first responders vaccinated,” said Warren. “Our first responders need this vaccine, so don’t block the lines. If they can’t get it, when we need them they may be sick with COVID and not be able to come.”

Joan Carr, spokesperson for the Shelby County Health Department, released the following statement to WMC Action News 5 when asked about the snag with the vaccine rollout:

“We ask the public, including those 65 and older, who do not fall within the 1a1 priority group to wait until their respective priority group is scheduled for vaccinations. It is critical that we focus on those workers who are at high risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus while serving the public. Everyone is encouraged to remain up to date on the latest information regarding the vaccine including which priority groups are receiving vaccines. As more vaccine is available, the priority groups served will be expanded.”

Right now, SCHD is following Phase 1a1 of the State of Tennessee vaccination plan: providing the vaccine to health care workers and first responders. The next Phase is 1a2 which covers primary care doctors, pharmacists and dentists. During Phase 1b adults with two or more high-risk health conditions like cancer and diabetes are eligible for the vaccine.

Phase 2 covers infrastructure workers, teachers and prison staff and inmates.

And Phases 3 and 4 include young adults, children and workers with high risk of exposure.

Exact dates for these phases aren’t known yet, but health experts say everyone should have access to the COVID-19 vaccine between the spring and summer months of 2021.

Chism realizes this is all new for the health department, and as with everything during the pandemic, there may be bumps in the road. But she’s concerned with what she’s seen so far from SCHD.

“If this is the way our health department handles the first round or first batch of the vaccine, it’s going to be a mess,” she said.

Warren promises the process will improve, and he urges Memphis and Shelby County residents to be patient.

“I would say that we’re rolling this out, and there are going to be glitches and you need to know, and everyone needs to know, that these vaccines aren’t for your family right now unless they’re a first responder,” he said.

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