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One Week, 40,000 Doses: City of Memphis to Run with Health Dept. Fumble

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Katie Riordan
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The City of Memphis abruptly took over major COVID-19 vaccination duties this week after the state found internal breakdowns in communication and procedures at the Shelby County Health Department resulted in the ruin of thousands of doses

Mayor Jim Strickland says the city has moved with breakneck speed to get a planned 40,000 shots in arms by week’s end, including thousands dedicated for the first time for teachers.  

“To be honest with you, it’s a little like jumping on a moving train, taking over as conductor and learning how to drive all at the same time,” he said during Thursday’s routine press briefing.  

Still, he said that the public should not expect any delays in vaccinations already scheduled. Future appointments will still be booked through the health department’s online system or hotline (901-222-SHOT). But an improved sign-up process is in the works, he said.  

Memphis’ Chief Operating Officer, Doug McGowen, will be heading vaccine operations. He says officials are taking special care not to create any more waste by thawing too many doses at once. 

“It is a complex process. It is one that we are earnest about getting it right,” McGowen said. “It’s one that I am accountable to all of you for executing.” 

Most pressing for the city is quickly dealing with a stockpile of about 50,000 shots that the health department says primarily accumulated because of last week’s winter weather and a teacher vaccination campaign. The state said the department should have never let its inventory get that high.    

McGowen says all but about 10,000 of that reserve should be used by week’s end. Officials are developing a plan as to how to best divvy up next week’s allotment from the state between the city, hospitals, pharmacies and safety net clinics, all of which will likely play a larger role in public vaccine distribution. 

Including both first and second doses, 30,000 shots are expected to be dispensed next week. 

At drive-thru vaccination sites, McGowen hopes standardizing practices like strictly checking for appointments and enforcing rules about arrival times of no more than one hour prior to an appointment will assuage some of the public’s disenchantment with the system. 

“Those small, incremental improvements, I think, will see a broad-ranging impact in wait times and decreasing the amount of frustration with getting an appointment,” he said.