Councilman Martavius Jones: “It is the desire of the council to address some of the areas where we haven’t had vaccine sites and just do a better job of coming up with different ideas and strategies to get more people vaccinated. That’s the purpose of this resolution.”

by James Coleman —

The Memphis City Council’s 12-0 approval of $1 million in emergency relief funds to pay for vaccine distribution efforts reflected hopes of boosting COVID-19 vaccination numbers as well as reaching an Aug. 1 goal of 700,000 shots in the arm.

Only seven of Tennesseans have been fully vaccinated, lagging behind the 7.97 percent rate nationwide.

“I would ask you all and the public to be patient and allow us to get our arms around the situation that we currently have,” Mayor Jim Strickland implored. “Overall, this is really hard work, really hard work. Employees throughout the city government are working on this.”

The money will be funneled from the council’s emergency relief program. The lump sum originally came from a budget season savings that went back into the reserve balance. It will be used at the administration’s discretion.

“It is a very necessary step in order to protect Memphians,” said Frank Colvett Jr., council chairman. “Anything we can do, I think all hands on deck on this issue.”

The move comes a week after the administration inherited much of the responsibility for distribution of the vaccine. The change came at the request of Tennessee Health Department Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. 

Former Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter resigned on Friday (Feb. 26) in association with the failure to distribute 2,500 vaccine doses to area teachers. As a result, the doses expired. In February, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted to move teachers to the front of the county’s vaccination line. The fiasco left Gov. Bill Lee calling for a “severe intervention.”

“The state is investigating the issue of expired vaccines,” Strickland said. “Commissioner Piercey told me that expired vaccines are not harmful, only less effective.”

Individuals who have received an expired dose will be contacted by the state health department. 

To smooth the transition, the county will continue to staff the 2-2-2 shots, or multi-dose vaccines, for the next two weeks.

“We are looking at other options after that time. Either the University of Memphis, or the state has a call center. We don’t know which direction we are going yet,” said Strickland.

The administration now assumes authority over the storage and distribution to public vaccination sites while also making the schedule for the locations. The city now has the lead role in a joint decision-making group on the allocation of vaccines to public sites, hospitals and neighborhood clinics. 

“It’s basically a centralized command with the city of Memphis … with decentralized execution,” said Doug McGowen, COO of Memphis. “We want to make sure we maintain equity, accessibility and don’t waste doses.”

Distribution is now going through public points of delivery. These include “pods” such as Christ Community and Church Health systems, other healthcare systems and “targeted” community pods, including sites at Appling Rd., Raleigh, the Pipkin Building, Germantown and Whitehaven. 

“It is the desire of the council to address some of the areas where we haven’t had vaccine sites and just do a better job of coming up with different ideas and strategies to get more people vaccinated. That’s the purpose of this resolution,” Councilman Martavius Jones.

Councilwoman Rhonda Logan was absent for the vote on the allocation.

Early data on 11,161 people vaccinated in Shelby Co. reflected a disparity in who received doses. Fifty percent of doses went to Whites, while African Americans received only 11.9 percent.

With 45,000 doses on hand, 34,000 appointments have been scheduled this week. It is estimated there will be around 3,000 no-shows. That will leave 15,000 doses left for next week. 

“We did not get authority to make public health decisions, such as the phase that we are in or any limitations on businesses because of COVID,” Strickland said. “It is also not about any vaccines for other diseases.”

Pharmacies get their doses from the state or federal government. Walgreens announced Tuesday that eleven locations in Shelby Co, including seven in Memphis, will begin offering vaccinations for the general public.