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High Demand For COVID-19 Vaccine Strains Health Departments In South

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Frustration is mounting over an uneven and at times chaotic vaccine rollout across Southern states, states which are also reporting record numbers of COVID-19 deaths right now. Health departments are largely overwhelmed by the demand for shots, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Alabama Home Health worker Michele Lartigue got her initial dose of COVID vaccine on December 28.

MICHELE LARTIGUE: I was one of the first people in line to get it at my local health department. And it was very exciting. It was a relief.

ELLIOTT: Lartigue is an occupational therapist in south Alabama.

LARTIGUE: With the setting that I'm in, I'm in people's homes. And so I just felt like it would afford me the extra protection.

ELLIOTT: Now it's time to schedule her second dose through a state hotline. But here's what she's up against.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're sorry. Your call did not go through. Will you please hang up and try your call again? This is a recording.

LARTIGUE: You cannot get through on that number.

ELLIOTT: She's tried dozens of times.

LARTIGUE: It's frustrating. I just want to get the vaccination, the second shot, in time.

ELLIOTT: Her coworker, Thomas Barfield, kept trying the hotline.

THOMAS BARFIELD: I think I hit redial probably, like, 40 times, and it finally went through.

ELLIOTT: But there were no appointments available in a five-county radius. He was put on a waiting list and later got an email saying a drive-through vaccine clinic may be available later this month with no appointment necessary. Barfield says that sounds like a traffic nightmare, with no priority for people needing a second dose.

BARFIELD: The whole process is just kind of chaos.

ELLIOTT: Alabama Governor Kay Ivey got her second dose of the vaccine yesterday and said it's a good sign that so many people are calling to try to get an appointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAY IVEY: Be patient, stay calm, and you'll get your shot.

ELLIOTT: Alabama state health officer Scott Harris says part of the problem is there's just not enough vaccine to go around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT HARRIS: There's just much, much more demand for the vaccine than we have right now. We believe that we can get it to everybody eventually, but we would just ask people to please continue to be patient. We're doing our best to improve our phone line ability.

ELLIOTT: Alabama's not alone. In Texas, after early confusion over who was eligible for shots, scheduling portals crashed under pressure. In Georgia, several hospitals were sending the message - don't call us, we'll call you. States have different plans for determining eligibility and how to get shots in arms. In Mississippi, for example, the National Guard helped set up drive-through vaccination sites. Florida recruited the Publix supermarket chain and churches to help with inoculations.

The state-by-state approach breeds confusion and mistrust, says Thomas LaVeist, dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans. He says it's not surprising that states are overwhelmed with such an enormous mission.

THOMAS LAVEIST: State health departments are not well positioned to handle something of this magnitude. Over the last 30 years or so, we've really divested the public health infrastructure and left that infrastructure significantly weakened.

ELLIOTT: LaVeist says the federal government should be taking a larger coordinating role. Alabama home health worker Michele Lartigue says the system must be fixed.

LARTIGUE: So that we can move on and have a normal society again.

ELLIOTT: But for now, Lartigue says she's caught in limbo, not knowing if she'll be able to get her second dose of vaccine on time.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOPER SAMS' "WHITE WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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