Roy Exum: Our Dec. 31 SNAFU

Sunday, January 3, 2021 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Have you ever heard a senior citizen cuss? I mean, really bad words with ‘added emphasis’ on the syllables? Yes, our ‘New Year’s Eve SNAFU’ was that bad … no, check that … It was ‘Situation. Normal: All. (Fouled). Up.” To wit: on the front lines during World War II – today’s over age 75 era, mind you – was when the acronym SNAFU was born into the American dictionary. And back then, the ‘F word” was far better fitting than the substitute: ‘fouled.’ Hark! it was used this past Thursday far more than ever before, by our citizens over 75 years old who were rightfully furious over the abuse they endured by a grossly incompetent Chattanooga Hamilton County Department of Heath.

“We most certainly did make mistakes,” Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told me during a lengthy and very candid conversation on Saturday, “and we will make more mistakes … but we will not make the same mistakes.”

In fairness, the first day’s attempt to vaccine our citizens over the age of 75 was a series of dreadful mistakes at the expense of our most vulnerable. It soon culminated in a ‘Perfect Storm’ of sorts. You need to know that Thursday was the first day that the state of Tennessee had added the ‘over 75’ group to those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Not one county in Tennessee was ready for the impending onslaught.

Common sense should have warned us; this in a state that leads the country in COVID infections and in Hamilton County where today a whopping 18 percent of the tests are positive. The vaccine is more desired than gold or rubies this week, and a huge disservice was dealt the community when it was not widely revealed that only 1,000 doses would be available. Is it any wonder, Einstein, that nobody foresaw the fact the car lane would be filling fast by 4:30 a.m., a good four hours before opening for the day?

Had it only been known that such a minuscule supply would be available to such a gargantuan demand, that alone would have been a great deterrent to the cars that soon stretched to Highway 153 and beyond. Such a lack of regard created sheer havoc on the elderly and their bladders that cannot and should not be tortured by sitting for over four hours with no access to a rest room. The result, universally agreed, was inhumane and the incompetency was glaring.

Almost as cruel was the mismanagement that sent volunteers out among those same automobiles with the message “Go back home.” No reason was given to those who had waited, no explanation that supplies were exhausted, no apology of any kind … which begs the question: How can any agency sworn to serve the public good fail so miserably?

“You are right. We were overwhelmed,” admitted the county mayor. “When I got called around 9 that morning, I immediately called our Emergency Management people and their response was instant. The Highway Patrol and the city’s police department were terrific in their immediate appraisal of what had happened, and we soon had the situation under control,” he added.

But not quite. A volunteer was told to count the number of people in the closest cars in line, which he did. But, no, what he should have been told was to find the number of people who were actually getting the vaccine. There is a big difference. If three daughters were bringing mother to get the vaccine, it is true that four people were in the car but, it was equally true that just one was to be vaccinated. “That was an innocent error, but just one of many,” Coppinger admitted.

Secondly, on Thursday the Pfizer vaccine was being given. It has been broadly reported that a vial of Pfizer vaccine holds five doses, while a vial of Moderna vaccine (which is also becoming available in Tennessee and is equally efficient) holds 10 doses. Nurses who have been administered the Pfizer vaccine have found the Pfizer brand has some overage in the vial delivered, between six and seven doses, while Moderna is absolute – 10 doses only per vial.

To the public’s shock, there were actually 1,158 doses given at the Chattanooga State site on Thursday instead of the anticipated 1,000 doses. This was due to the overages in the Pfizer vials which led to the most inexcusable mistake of the day. By 4:30 Thursday afternoon, not long after the last cars had been turned away from the health department’s site, incompetent leadership discovered there were still doses that had been prepared and were available.

Our Health Department nincompoop panicked, knowing the shelf life on the Pfizer drug is very short after it is once taken from the 160-degrees-below-zero storage bin. “Capt. Panic” dares not waste a dose (!) so he/she tells those working to call their friends, have them rush to the vaccine site, and get processed and inoculated. It was a grievous mistake and an incalculable public perception disaster. The disgust, mistrust, scorn, and anger are still quite rancid.

* * *


Q – How many ‘outlaw’ doses were given? A – “I am not sure, but I am very sure this wasn’t a buddy-buddy act or ‘knowing someone on the inside’ or unjust favoritism. Yes, it was a huge mistake in every way, but the sole intent was not to waste a single dose. I am confident it wasn’t more than 200 or so doses. The general public was amply served by the shipment of doses we received.”

Q – Why didn’t they call the police department, the fire department, the clerical staff at Erlanger? A – “I can’t answer that, but I am sure this was a when-seconds-matter decision to get the vaccine into anyone’s arm rather than waste it. I know once the doses are prepared, they must go into an arm as quickly as possible.”

Q – Horrible scenario: What are the chances several nurses may have withheld a cc-or-two until they had enough of a dose for their clandestine lover when the “friends” who were awaiting the coast-is-clear phone call were told to come quick? A – “Absolutely and unequivocally impossible. Every person who has been vaccinated has been treated with care. When I go to sleep at night I know we are taking the greatest care to administer the vaccine as carefully and as professionally as it can be done."

Q – Could the extra doses have been transported by siren to a long-term care facility? A – “The quick answer is ‘No’ for this reason. In Hamilton County we have 19 long-term or assisted-living facilities. The federal government has contracted Walgreens and CVS pharmacies to administer the vaccine to those centers in Hamilton County. It is a government project that will begin this week. The idea, obviously, is to free the Heath Department staff to treat the general public.”

* * *

County Mayor Coppinger said the Health Department is actively hiring employees as quickly as possible to meet the urgent need and, even as you read this, there are active plans being made to rectify Thursday’s mistakes, better align logistics “and get much better at what we are trying to do,” County Mayor Coppinger implored. “Alabama’s football team is much better right now than it was in the summer. Just like everything, our mistakes teach us lessons and, again, no county in America has ever been through this."

“As a politician I’ve tried to never say ‘Trust me,’ so instead I ask people to be patient. I forced our health department to close for Thanksgiving Day, okay?, but we had a number of employees who worked all day on Christmas and on New Year’s Day in fear we’d fall further behind. I don’t blame them for anything. If people want to grumble, complain, get angry … aim it at me …. I’m the guy in charge and God knows I am sorry for all that’s happened.

“Yeah, it’s all my fault, but I can promise we are correcting mistakes as fast as we can … and we can,” said the county mayor.

Good, so tell me how:

* -- “Chattanooga State was tremendously gracious in letting us use their facilities until school resumed. Hopefully by Monday we’ll be able to announce a new vaccination site that will be better and allow greater access.”

* -- “We plan to keep the testing site (the Alstom facility) on Riverfront Parkway fully active until further notice. It is open from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. every day. With a positive test rate right now of 18 percent, we encourage anyone with any type symptoms, or who may have come in contact with anyone who ‘may’ be positive, to please use this. There is no charge and, while we deeply regret some results, like yours, took a week, our provider was experiencing a deluge that it successfully managed, but I got tested again last week, waited 35 minutes, and got my results in two days. They tell me it is never more than three days now before you learn the results.”

* -- (What if you test positive?) “The Health Department gets a report of all the tests each day from several test sites. Those who test positive should call the Health Department hotline (see website for instructions) and the negative tests are forwarded to Nashville for statistical purposes.”

* -- “We did not mandate masks, for the very reasons you wrote about, but I can’t be emphatic enough that this is a critical time to be more aware of the threat of the infectious virus. Please mask, distance, and avoid crowds. Wash your hands at every opportunity. Be part of that 82 percent that is disease free and use the greatest precautions to stay that way. Oh, and after you are given the first of the two-step vaccine, you are just as susceptible to the virus as if you never gotten the vaccine before.”

* -- (When is the next dose available?) “I am told we are going to receive a shipment on Monday … it’s Moderna, I think. We never know the number of doses we are going to get until it actually gets here. We hope to administer vaccine on Tuesday. I urge people to check the news outlets and the website

* -- (Have you considered registration/appointments for the vaccine?) “Sure, we tried that with testing and had a 40 percent no-show rate … we are looking into everything. Should we give each candidate a ticket when they first arrive. That might work until you find there are various reasons every candidate cannot be vaccinated that day – a fever, a cough, there are some things you cannot foresee or predict .. “

* -- (We have 48 percent of our workforce in Hamilton County who do not reside in Hamilton County. In addition, as a ‘border county,’ there are a good number of county residents who work outside Hamilton County. Who gets the vaccine and who doesn’t?) “This is a very sensitive topic and a touchy question but here is my answer until I am corrected. As of right now, anyone who lives in Hamilton County … or who works full-time in our community … will get the vaccine. The states of Georgia and Alabama and our outlying Tennessee counties – while providing the majority of in-house patients in the Erlanger COVID wards – pay us no remuneration to care for their taxpayers. I don’t think that is fair but in Hamilton, I hope we will never turn anyone away. That is not as popular with many as you may think, but until we are instructed otherwise, if you are part of our county’s community, we will treat everyone the same as us.”

* -- (Could we not have several vaccine sites?) “It is not feasible, although under a perfect world that is exactly what we need to do. Right now, if we get 1,000 doses, they need to be doled out as if they were a microscope. Let’s say we send 500 of those doses to Site No. 2 … Site No. 1 runs out, but Site No. 2 still has doses.  Now we have created a gold rush to Site No. 2, and in the end we will have made the people who are mad four times greater than those who happy. Past experience is a great teacher.”

Bottom line: The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department was abysmal on Thursday. A SNAFU? You bet. But the Health Department is all we’ve got and there is no other choice than for us to apologize for a huge SNAFU, make corrections, and proceed forward. Forget where we’ve been. Let’s move ahead at warp speed.

* * *

Let’s also confront the root of the evil. The public health system in the United States, whether you want to admit it of not, has been regulated to the status of an orphan since 2008. In Hamilton County as well as across America, public health has been horribly underfunded, ignored, and relegated to little more than a joke’s punch line. It is a place you go to get a copy of your birth certificate or a test for a sexually transmitted disease, so your personal physicians won’t know, you know?

I personally believe the United States Army, blessed with many skills, should have been tasked with distribution of the vaccine because no other organization in our country is as skilled in getting from Point A to Point B. Instead, our public health departments were charged with the distribution and the responsibly of delivering us from the worst pandemic in our history.

We must respond on the local, state, and national levels to rebuild and fortify our Public Heath people and facilities with ample funding – this immediately – to not just be successful but to soar. A quick glance at Hamilton County’s contribution to our Health Department affirms it is at the bottom of our county budget’s food chain. This must be rectified immediately. I’m thinking with a powerful infusion at Wednesday’s County Commission meeting. Lip service doesn’t pay.

Hamilton County has 269,000 residents and we’ve vaccinated approximately 3,000. We have an 18 percent positive test rate.

Further, reported Saturday night: “Hamilton County reported 505 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, for a total of 30,035. The new total of cases in Hamilton County is 29,530. There have been 275 deaths in Hamilton County from the virus.

“The number of coronavirus cases in Tennessee is at 604,132 on Saturday with 8,550 new cases. There have been 15 more deaths from the virus, for a total of 6,970, state Health Department officials said. The state currently has 3,114 people hospitalized from the virus, 84 fewer than on Friday.”

Are we going to stay at SNAFU? Or dust the seat of our britches off and keep going? Remember, lives depend on our actions, not yesterday but today and tomorrow. Press on.







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