Health Dept. testing messaging system for vaccine standby list

By , Daily Memphian Updated: January 26, 2021 9:28 AM CT | Published: January 25, 2021 6:30 PM CT
<strong>Shelby County Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane.</strong> (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Shelby County Health Department personnel and volunteers administer COVID-19 vaccinations on Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the Pipkin Building at Tiger Lane. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Starting this week, Shelby County will receive 11,000 to 12,000 doses of vaccine a week from the state, inching it closer to its goal of inoculating 3,500 to 5,000 people a day.

The Health Department is doing a fraction of that now. On a good day, such as Saturday, Jan. 23, it got close to 1,200 at the Pipkin Building by bumping up staffing.

<strong>Alisa Haushalter</strong>

Alisa Haushalter

The Appling Cove site, which will be open four days this week for second doses, is expected to run about 1,200 a day, according to director Alisa Haushalter.

It is not clear how many employees the hospitals are vaccinating per day, and with the Veterans Administration giving shots and federal contracts with Walgreens and CVS stepping up inoculations at nursing homes, the numbers stand to increase quickly. But there is no current way to tally the federal and local efforts, she said, leaving broad questions about the number of people actually getting vaccinated, including in nursing homes.

“We do know that pharmacies are working with the nursing homes, but we don’t have the ability locally to know exactly how much vaccine they’ve been given, at least not at the current time, and which nursing homes they visited,” she said.

<strong>U.S. Rep.</strong><br /><strong>Steve Cohen</strong>

U.S. Rep.
Steve Cohen

In a letter Monday, Jan. 25, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen took Gov. Bill Lee to task for the amount of vaccine Shelby County is receiving from the state, telling him Shelby County residents have done what they were told, acting in “good faith” throughout the pandemic despite the state’s reluctance to issue statewide guidance on masking and other precautions.

“Yet recent news reports indicate that the county is last when it comes to vaccination rates,” Cohen wrote. “These reports contradict your Administration’s announced policy of giving inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas an additional 5 percent increase in vaccine allocations.”

Shelby County Schools is expected to resume in-person classes on Feb. 8, but under the current allocation, teachers can’t expect to be vaccinated until March, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said Monday.

Even though the county has had many partners willing to help it vaccinate, “we can’t turn the lights on on some of those kind of pieces and do the massive teacher vaccination without the vaccine,” he said.

Queuing up

To improve access and equity of who gets the vaccine, the county for weeks has been testing Vax Queue, an IT messaging system that allows people to sign up online for the vaccine and get a text, call to a landline phone or an email when there are doses available, including when the state unexpectedly adds more doses one week or when people don’t show up for appointments. 

Based on the registration questionnaire, the county will know both how close someone is to a test site and how fast they can get there, but also the person’s age and job, so the Health Department can quickly move these people into line.

“Sometimes we might find out in the middle of the day because of weather or some other event that we will have additional vaccines and so, for those who aren’t able to get to a site fairly quickly, we’ll be able to identify those individuals and make sure that we provide them with notice,” said Danielle Inez, chief of staff for Shelby County government.

People who say they can arrive in an hour will receive four hours’ notice and the location of the vaccination site in the text message or phone call.

Demand can be sorted by ZIP code too, she said, so the Health Department can see where the need is and schedule clinics accordingly.

The system is expected to go live this week. Signup for Vax Queue will be through

Right now, additional supply is made known by word of mouth, which has created access issues.

Landers Center becoming COVID-19 vaccination site

“People just have to hope that they’re in the know or that they know someone who will contact them and let them know when additional vaccines are available,” Inez said. “We’re trying to make that process more equitable so that anybody that wants to be in the know can sign up to receive that information.”

For now, the program allows people to get to the back of the line and wait their turn. Future iterations of Vax Queue will allow them to make appointments, including second appointments at the time they get their first shot.

Monday, that would have assuaged a lot of anxiety for people 75 and older and hundreds of sandwich-generation children looking after elderly parents.

Early in the day, a certain desperation reigned as hundreds of seniors who got first doses between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3 had their first encounter with SignUpGenius, a sign-up portal created more than 10 years ago to help churches and other groups organize potlucks and volunteers.

It is now the vehicle for making online COVID appointments. When the Health Department released the links at 8 a.m. Monday, thousands of people were at home, hovering over their keyboards.

Locations, signup link released for second doses

Legions more were waiting for the Health Department to text them the link. When the texts didn’t arrive, it set off another round of anxiety. Hundreds more rushed to get help through the hotline – (901) 222-SHOT (7468) – where callers alternately were not able to get through or got busy signals for hours.

“It was crazy,” said Marilyn Hergenrader. “I’m in a Facebook group with all kinds of people my age who have parents 75 and older. None of our parents are technologically savvy; some don’t have internet. We are hawking this for them, worried that it was going to be first-come, first-served or difficult.

“Lo and behold, it was difficult,” she said shortly after 1 p.m. when her mother was finally registered.


McGowen on COVID vaccine: ‘Send us as much as you can’

After numerous attempts to use what she said were non-functioning links on the Health Department’s website, Hergenrader typed the address into her browser and got the signup for Germantown Baptist, the most convenient location for her mother, only to realize that she needed to second shot before Feb. 2, when it will open.

“It is very frustrating. I have had tons of phone calls this morning from other people like me who have to help their parents. You worry: Will there not be enough? Will they fill up fast and you’ll miss your chance for your mom to get it?

“The more they give partial and incomplete information, the more you lack confidence you’re going to get a spot,” she said.

For her, it was a significant misstep to say times and places for second doses would be released Thursday, Jan. 21, and not produce them.

Jim Dixon signed up for a text prompt from the Health Department letting him know how to register for his second dose.

When it didn’t come when the links went public Monday, he wondered what else wasn’t working.

“I did eventually get a text, that was good,” he said. “But I was expecting they would burn all those out at 8 a.m. so people wouldn’t be apprehensive.”

He was able to make an appointment on SignUpGenius after a few tries, and now feels comfortable with what’s next.

“I realize it’s the first time for the Health Department and the first time for everybody,” Dixon said. “It would seem like there was so much uncertainty on the Health Department’s part. When we asked a doctor there if we would get our second shot, she was definite. ‘You’ll get a second shot, but we don’t know when because we don’t know about the availability or inventory.’ ”

The state now is negotiating with large retailers, including Kroger, Walgreens and CVS to expand vaccine distribution.

“I would say it’s not that far off in the future,” Haushalter said. “The state is really depending on increasing supply from the federal level, which would allow some of the plans to be moved up statewide.” 

By this time next week, the Health Department expects to announce a vaccination station in Whitehaven. It is also scouting locations off Sam Cooper Boulevard and in Frayser.

Starting this week, it will offer vaccines to seniors, 60 and older, who are already clients receiving other services at the Health Department’s offices at 1020 S. Bellevue. Other people in their 60s are not being vaccinated yet.


Alisa Haushalter Mayor Lee Harris Jim Dixon Marilyn Hergenrader vaccine
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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