Blount Countians aged 75 and older qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Tennessee Department of Health’s coronavirus vaccination plan. However, many seniors are struggling to nail down answers to their most basic vaccine queries: when, where and how to get one.

On Monday, Jan. 11, TDH launched an online appointment scheduling website for people to sign up for a waiting list to get the vaccine.

Before the website’s launch, many area seniors reported spending hours calling the regional health department’s COVID-19 information line to book an appointment. The line was promoted by the state health department as the most effective way to book an appointment.

Rick Wallace, of Townsend, who falls in Phase 1b of the state health department’s vaccination plan, called the hotline nearly 50 times in one day before speaking with someone.

“After 46 attempts I was finally connected with a live human named Julia,” he said. “She was quite pleasant and informative.”

Wallace gave the health department worker his and his wife’s names, ages, medical conditions and county of residence. The worker put Wallace and his wife on a waitlist and told him to await a phone call or email telling him when they could schedule appointments.

“Julia also mentioned her office is hammered every day with thousands of calls. They are supposed to be currently in the middle of hiring and training new employees for the information line and, of course, add more phones,” Wallace said. “I do so certainly hope this comes to fruition for the staff’s sake and the sake of our Tennessee residents, too, soon.”

TDH Public Information Officer Corie Gouge said the health department is in the process of “recruiting volunteers through our Medical Reserve Corps” to work the phone line.

The line, however, could become less vital after Monday’s online booking rollout. Now, Tennesseans can sign up at signupgenius.com/go/blount-priority-list for the vaccine waiting list.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Blount County Health Department had more than 3,060 people on the vaccine waiting list, the SignUpGenius web page showed.

If a person prefers to schedule an appointment by phone, he or she still can call 865-549-5343.

The state’s COVID-19 online hub, covid19.tn.gov, also shows vaccine availability at each county health department. As of 7 p.m. Jan. 11, the Blount County Health Department had no vaccines available for administration.

Detailing vaccination phases, the state’s webpage offers a tool with which people can answer a series of questions, and the site will reveal which vaccination phase a person falls into.

Blount County currently is in Phase 1a2: health care workers with direct patient exposure. Simultaneously, the health department is vaccinating people aged 75 and older.

Roughly 4,698 Blount Countians had received their first COVID-19 vaccination doses as of Jan. 11. That’s 3.53% of the county’s estimated population. About 1,929, or 1.45%, had received both doses, TDH data showed.

By the start of the year, Blount Memorial Hospital had administered 2,327 vaccinations to its employees and volunteers and some members of the general public aged 75 and older, or those who belong to Blount Memorial Physicians Group.

The hospital used leftover doses to vaccinate 101 residents and staff of BMH’s MorningView Village Senior Community.

Other residents and staff at Blount County long-term care facilities will receive their vaccine through CVS Pharmacy. Vaccine clinics in Tennessee long-term care facilities are set to begin today (Wednesday, Jan. 13), CVS data shows.

Any additional vaccines Blount Memorial receives in the near future will be offered to patients aged 75 and older with a primary care physician in the physician’s group, BMH Director of Marketing Jennie Bounds said.

“We had an estimated 900 doses of vaccine available, and that number of appointments has been made for this week,” Bounds emailed. ”This is all the vaccine we have available for community distribution for the week of Jan. 11.”

Bounds estimated more than 20,000 BMPG patients are older than 75 but was unable to say how many patients fall into Phase 1a2.

People who qualify for a dose from a Blount Memorial vaccine shipment will be contacted by their doctor when the vaccines are available.

Follow @_shelbyharris on Twitter for more from government reporter Shelby Harris.

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