Vaccines administered at the Henry County Medical Center drive-thru. (Source: Henry County Medical Center)

In Henry County, Tennessee, before the vaccine, businesses were struggling to keep shifts filled.

Paris-Henry County Chamber of Commerce CEO Travis McLeese said he heard from several of the chamber’s 440 members that businesses were juggling schedules just to stay open.

“When we started opening back up, cases (of Covid-19) were still an issue,” he said. “There were a lot of issues with people needing to be off to take care of kids, or  because someone was sick.”

But once vaccines started filtering through the community, those issues stopped, he said.

“Of course it was because of the vaccines,” he said. “Now, from a revenue perspective we’re at an all-time high.”

Henry County’s Covid-19 new-infection rate peaked in mid-December and is now about as low as it has been in a year. The northwest Tennessee county of about 32,000 residents fared a bit better than the rest of the state in its cumulative infection rate. But its death rate from Covid-19 is about 25% higher than the state average. The county has recorded 75 deaths since its first in August 2020, according to USA Facts.

Henry County Medical Center started giving out vaccines to healthcare workers in December. By January, the hospital was working on a drive-through vaccination program, Paula Bell, the center’s pharmacy director, said.

With many staff members caring for Covid patients, the hospital staff knew that setting up appointments for vaccines would be difficult. Instead, they set up a clinic in the parking lot of the Henry County Healthcare Center parking lot. Originally scheduled to run over four days, the clinic would allow patients to drive into the parking lot, present the more than 30 volunteers with paperwork, get their shots and be monitored for reactions all without getting out of their cars.

The response was overwhelming, she said. While the clinic didn’t technically open up until 9 a.m., vehicles began forming a line at 1:30 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., the line waiting to get a vaccine was more than a mile long and backed up to the local Wal-Mart. Police were called in to manage traffic issues and make the process go as smoothly as possible.

“I think the first day we anticipated we’d give out about 300 shots,” Bell said. “We ended up giving more than 700 shots in just four hours.”

That’s the equivalent of 2.5 people vaccinated every minute.

Working closely with the health department and the community, the medical center was able to get the community vaccinated.

The chamber helped, McLeese said.

“We helped from a marketing standpoint to get the word out to the community,” he said. “We marketed the importance of getting the vaccine, and to remind people that if we wanted to get back to anything close to normal, people needed to get vaccinated.”

Bell estimated that the medical center has vaccinated more than 9,000 people in the county. Currently, according to the state’s Covid Vaccine Dashboard, more than 21,000 vaccines have been administered. The state reports that 35 percent of the county has received at least one dose of the vaccine, and that 32 percent have received both doses. More than two-thirds of the population 65 and older have completed their vaccinations. 

The Henry County economy took a hit from the pandemic but is improving, according to employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment dropped by about 18% from April 2019, before the pandemic, to April 2020, the first full month of the economic shutdown in the U.S. By April of this year, employment was just 8% below pre-pandemic levels. April 2021 employment was 12,851, about 760 jobs below the April 2019 level.

Although the vaccination drive has helped the county reopen, Bell says demand for vaccinations has dwindled to a trickle.

“We honestly don’t have good demand right now” she said. “There’s a lot of access to all three vaccines in our community, but the demand has gone down to very few… Today, we’ve given out one Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”

Now, the efforts have shifted from getting people to come to the vaccine, to getting the vaccines to the people. Last week, the medical center held a vaccine event at the River Jam Music Festival and provided shots for anyone 12 and over. On July 2, the center will do another event to get a shipment of Moderna vaccines into people’s arms. On July 10, the medical center is planning another event with the Pfizer vaccine, but so far, Bell said, sign-ups have been slow.

In April, the Tennessee Department of Health said a study it commissioned found that over half of Tennessee residents are hesitant to get the vaccine.

In a survey of 1,000 Tennesseans, 53.7% of all the respondents said they were willing, but hesitant, to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. For most of them, the hesitancy stemmed from not knowing how safe the vaccine is and not knowing whether it could have side effects.

“The results are consistent with national trends and show that Tennesseans want more information from trusted sources as they make their decision,” said Tennessee Health Department Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP, in a statement. “This market survey was an important step in identifying where we can be helpful in providing information about safety and effectiveness.”

According to the survey, 40% of those respondents said they were either unwilling to get the vaccine or unwilling but open to consideration.

To address this, Bell said, the medical center is working with primary care providers to get the message out about the vaccines’ safety. Through videos and social media posts, the medical center has worked with the chamber to distribute that message. The center is also working with OB/Gyns and pediatricians in town to share information about vaccine safety and fertility in younger women. 

In small towns, she said, medical professionals are trusted influencers.

“What you have here in a small town is that a lot of the people that we utilize to speak out about the vaccination or encourage people to get it… folks in this community have known for many, many years,” she said. “We heard several people say that based on a video they saw (of a provider), or information that was provided by the providers, it encouraged them to get the vaccine.”

But, she said, being in a small town can also have its drawbacks.

“Being in a small community, you’re isolated and so you aren’t subjected to as much of the crisis,” she said. “And when you don’t see that on an everyday basis or experience that, it can give you a sense of false security.”