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Demand outpaces supply in Sullivan for COVID-19 vaccine

BLOUNTVILLE — If you are a Sullivan County resident over age 75 or otherwise eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine (see list below), your best bet to get a shot today is to drive to the Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s main facility in Blountville.

The addition of the 75-plus age group into the eligibility pool, a decision made at the state level and publicized over the New Year’s holiday, overloaded and disabled the Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s telephone lines on Monday. The department also ran out of vaccine.

It has secured more — and is seeking still more.

Department Director Gary Mayes told the Times News the department’s contractor for its telephone system was working Monday afternoon and evening to attempt to restore service by Tuesday morning. But that wasn’t a sure thing.

Mayes said the system received more than 73,000 incoming calls between 7:30 a.m. and approximately 4:30 p.m. on Monday. For perspective, the health department received just over 100,000 incoming calls for the entire month of December, Mayes said.

“Our phone system collapsed,” Mayes said. “Our vendor is desperately working to repair it.”

Mayes said more than 400 doses of the vaccine were administered on Monday, mostly to frontline medical workers, but some 75-plus-year-olds did manage to get the shot.

Mayes said it is “not unreasonable” for the public to want the vaccine as quickly as possible.

“We have unbelievable demand,” Mayes said. “Which is really a positive, that citizens feel we have a safe and effective vaccine. Supply is not meeting demand. Distribution is done from the federal government to the state governments to the county governments. And we are allocated vaccine based on population. That’s how we received our first few doses. We are working desperately to obtain more vaccine, because our demand in Sullivan County is very, very high. We haven’t been offered ‘how much vaccine would you like to have?’ We were told ‘this is the amount you’re going to get based on your population.’ And it turns out that our population in Sullivan County is very interested in obtaining the vaccine. Which is great. We simply need more and more vaccine.”

The health department has been criticized by some on social media because the vaccine is only currently offered at its Blountville location. Mayes said the department spent three months developing a vaccine distribution strategy based on CDC guidelines. That included a multiphase rollout, which was to initially begin with frontline medical workers and others — which could have been accomplished from a central location.

Members of the general population, broken down by age groups, older to younger, were to be eligible in a later phase — according to state and federal guidelines in use until last week.

The health department’s long-term plan is not to be the sole provider of the vaccine, and plans all along have been to expand its distribution to locations across the county and inside the cities, Mayes said.

“This is the beginning of the early days,” Mayes said. “It is a model we have in place with the state for administering a vaccine.”

While Mayes couldn’t say for sure the phone system would be repaired by Tuesday morning, he was sure the department would have more vaccine. In his first interview with the Times News on Monday afternoon, Mayes said he’d been on a conference call with the state and was going to make some more calls trying to secure more vaccine, but it could be Wednesday or Thursday before any arrived. He called back later to say that thanks to Ballad Health, he was on his way to pick up more vaccine, although he wasn’t yet sure of how many doses.

Mayes said the 400-plus doses given Monday were the last of the 1,400 total doses the Sullivan County Regional Health Depart- ment has been sent, to date, since the vaccine became available.

According to the state’s website, the first two phases of vaccine eligibility are projected to include 650,000 individuals (400,000 in 1a1 and 250,000 in 1a2) statewide.

Mayes said that given the uncertainty of the telephone situation, those eligible under phase 1a1 or 1a2 may want to come in person to the health department and staff will attempt to work them in as quickly as possible. But once the phones are working, appointments may also be scheduled that way, as long as vaccine supplies hold out.

The health department posted the following statement on social media at about 7:15 p.m. on Monday:

“We received more vaccine and will be vaccinating 1a1 and 1a2 individuals and those who are 75 and older tomorrow through Friday this week from 9:00-3:00 as long as vaccine supplies last. This will be at the Blountville location of the health department only. No appointments are required. Phase 1a1 and 1a2 only includes the individuals in the (lists) below. This will be done through a drive-through system and the entrance will be on Massengill Road, turning onto Emergency Drive. Please follow the signage. We strongly encourage everyone to please remain in their vehicles and avoid getting out of cars to socialize with others who have received vaccine. We also request that individuals don’t get in line to hold places for others as it causes delays and disruptions in the drive-through. We will continue to update the public with information as we receive it. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”

In addition to anyone over age 75, the following are eligible for the vaccine during the current phase of distribution (1a2, and inclusive of those eligible in 1a1): Hospital/free-standing emergency department staff with direct patient exposure and/or exposure to potentially infectious materials; home health care staff; COVID-19 mass testing site staff; student health providers; staff and residents of long-term care facilities; skilled nursing facilities, assisted living centers, homes for the aged, DIDD residential centers, group homes; first responders with direct public exposure; individuals 18 years or older who cannot live independently due to a serious chronic medical condition or intellectual or developmental disability; primary care providers and staff; outpatient specialty providers and staff working with acute patients; pharmacists and staff; patient transport; outpatient therapists; urgent visit center providers and staff; environmental services; oral health providers; behavioral health providers; outpatient laboratory staff working with COVID-19 specimens; and funeral/mortuary workers with direct decedent contact.

Former Kingsport vice-mayor Richard Watterson passes away

KINGSPORT — Richard Watterson, the first African-American elected to the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen, passed away on Monday due to COVID-19 complications. He was 94 years old.

According to his youngest son, Ricky, the elder Watterson passed away at 4:30 a.m. on Monday at the VA Medical Center. Arrangements will be made through Carter-Trent Funeral Home.

Ricky Watterson described his father as having true compassion and love for all people, and someone who tried to tell the truth and be honest at all times.

“I think he had true passion for every citizen as a human being. (He) didn’t see Black or white and didn’t care about Black or white. He just cared about everybody, it shows and I think the people saw that,” Watterson said. “He believed in everybody, it didn’t matter about ethnicity or anything and when you get past that, you’re able to touch people, and relate to people.”

Watterson was first elected to the BMA in 1973. He served until 1997 and during his long tenure on the board, Watterson served as vice mayor from 1981 to 1995. According to city officials, Watterson often garnered the top vote count during many of those city elections when his name was on the ballot.

“I think he lasted (24 years on the BMA) by telling the truth, by listening to people and by truly wanting to help people,” Watterson said of his father.

During his tenure on the BMA, Ricky Watterson said, his father promoted the Sunshine Law, helped pass liquor by the drink and served on the task force that worked to address issues in the Riverview community.

“The biggest thing is dad had a compassion for people, he listened and he took it to heart,” Ricky Watterson said.

Watterson graduated from Douglass High School, attended Swift Memorial Jr. College and Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and served in the U.S. Navy from 1943 through 1946, with most of his time spent on the USS Nassau.

At the age of 12, Watterson went to work for Harvey Brooks (a local businessman who built and lived at Allandale Mansion).

Richard’s mother, Maggie, and his aunt Savannah also worked for the Brooks family. Richard Watterson ultimately worked for the Brooks family for 20 years, working as a chauffeur, butler and caretaker.

Watterson served on a number of state and local boards, including the State Board of Legal Services and the Board of Directors of the Kingsport Boys Club.

He also was the State Commissioner for Human Development, the first chairman of the Riverview Branch Boys Club, the president of the Esquire Club and a member of the Kiwanis Club and Optimist Club.

In 2016 — the year Watterson turned 90 years old — the BMA proclaimed April 6 as “Richard Watterson Day.”

“Richard was the first African-American elected on a citywide basis shortly after integration, and he was re-elected every term until he chose not to run again. That speaks volumes of the job he did in consistently representing his constituents,” said former City Manager Jeff Fleming. “He was a visionary who had a unique way of convincing ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Former Kingsport Board of Education President Paul Montgomery said Watterson worked hard for all of the citizens of Kingsport and especially hard for the school system in its efforts “to make the city schools the best we could have. He was a friend of education. He was our go-to person.”

“Our community has lost a pioneer in local government,” Montgomery said. “He helped mentor me in politics. He was a good man.”

Biden, Trump warn of high stakes of Georgia Senate runoffs

ATLANTA, Ga. — President-elect Joe Biden on Monday told Georgia Democrats they had the power to “chart the course” for a generation as President Donald Trump urged GOP voters to “swamp” the polls ahead of runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Trump made his final-hours pitch to voters at a nighttime rally in north Georgia, where Republicans were banking on strong voter turnout Tuesday to reelect Sen. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and hold control of the chamber. He told a boisterous crowd of several thousand supporters that “the stakes in this election could not be higher.”

Biden campaigned with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Atlanta, hoping he could recreate the coalition that secured him a narrow victory in the presidential race in November.

“Folks, this is it. This is it. It’s a new year, and tomorrow can be a new day for Atlanta, for Georgia and for America,” Biden said at a drive- in rally. “Unlike any time in my career, one state — one state — can chart the course, not just for the four years but for the next generation.”

The stakes have drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending to a once solidly Republican state that now finds itself as the nation’s premier battleground. Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes by about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast in November, though Trump continues pushing false assertions of widespread fraud that even his now-former attorney general and Georgia’s Republican secretary of state — along with a litany of state and federal judges — have said did not happen.

The president’s trip came a day after disclosure of a remarkable telephone call he made to the Georgia secretary of state over the weekend. Trump pressured Republican Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Georgia’s election results ahead of Wednesday’s joint session of Congress that will certify Biden’s Electoral College victory.

The call highlighted how Trump has used the Georgia campaign to make clear his continued hold on Republican politics.

Angry after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally but was persuaded to go ahead with it so he would have a chance to reiterate his claims of election fraud. Republi- cans were wary as to whether he would focus only on himself and fail to promote the two GOP candidates.

A top Georgia election official said hours before Trump’s rally that he “wanted to scream” after hearing audio of the president’s call with Raffensperger.

“Do not self-suppress your own vote,” said Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s voting system implementation manager.

But Trump, at the rally in Dalton, Georgia, spent much of his address on message, making an impassioned case that Loeffler’s and Perdue’s races were among the most important Georgia voters would ever face and made the case that “the fate of our country is at stake.”

To be sure, he also spent a fair amount of time rehashing false claims that the November election was “rigged.” He fumed that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp was “incompetent” and replayed many of the same debunked claims that he raised days ago in his call with Raffensperger.

“The Democrats are trying to steal the White House, you cannot let them,” Trump said. “You just can’t let them steal the U.S. Senate, you can’t let it happen.”

Biden on Monday took aim at Trump’s scheme by declaring that “politicians cannot assert, take or seize power” by undermining legitimate elections.

Biden said he needs a Senate majority to pass legislation to combat the coronavirus, and he blasted Perdue and Loeffler as obstructionist Trump loyalists. Loeffler says she will join other Republican lawmakers in objecting to the Electoral College certification of Biden’s victory by Congress on Wednesday.

“You have two senators who think they’ve sworn an oath to Donald Trump, not the United States Constitution,” Biden said.

Earlier Monday, Vice President Mike Pence told a crowd of conservative Christian voters at a campaign event in Milner, Georgia, to stop a Democratic takeover in Washington. “We’re going to keep Georgia, and we’re going to save America,” Pence said at Rock Springs Church in Milner.

Perdue addressed the church crowd in Milner by telephone while quarantining over coronavirus exposure, claiming that “the very future of our republic is on the line” and declaring the duty to vote “a calling from God.”

Trump amplified the sentiment, warning that Ossoff and Warnock wins would lead to a sharp leftward swing in American policy making.

“These Senate seats are truly the last line of defense,” Trump said. He added, “It’s really fight for our country, not a fight for Trump.”

Republicans need just one victory to maintain Senate control and force Biden to contend with divided government. Democrats need a sweep for a 50-50 split, giving the tiebreaking vote to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will succeed Pence as the Senate’s presiding officer. That would give Democrats a Senate majority to go along with their control of the House and executive branch.

Pence, who will preside over Wednesday’s congressional joint session, sidestepped Trump’s denials Monday until a man yelled out that he must “do the right thing on Jan. 6.” Pence promised that “we’ll have our day in Congress,” though he offered no details about what that might mean. Scores of Republicans in Congress have pledged to protest the Electoral College count, but Pence has no legal authority to override Biden’s win.

Facing those passions from the Republican base, Perdue, whose first Senate term expired Sunday, and Loeffler, an appointed senator trying to win her first election, have run as unabashed Trump Republicans and spent the two-month runoff blitz warning of a “radical” and “dangerous” lurch to the left.

Ossoff and Warnock have countered with warnings that a Republican Senate will stymie Biden’s administration, especially on pandemic relief.

Warnock pushed back at the deluge of Loeffler television ads casting him as a socialist. “Have you noticed she hasn’t even bothered to make a case, Georgia, for why you should keep her in that seat?” Warnock said, speaking ahead of Biden. “That’s because she has no case to make.”

A closely divided Senate — with the rules still requiring 60 votes to advance major bills — lessens the prospects of sweeping legislation regardless. But a Democratic Senate would at least assure Biden an easier path for top appointees, including judges, and legitimate consideration of his legislative agenda. A Senate led by McConnell would almost certainly deny even an up-or-down vote on Biden’s most ambitious plans.

More than 3 million Georgians already have voted. Monday’s push focused on getting voters to the polls Tuesday. Democrats ran up a wide margin among 3.6 million early votes in the fall, but Republicans countered with an Election Day surge, especially in small towns and rural areas.


Amy reported from Milner, Ga. Associated Press writers Kevin Freking in Dalton, Georgia, Aamer Madhani in Chicago and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

20 new COVID-19 deaths, 265 new cases reported in Northeast Tennessee

The latest COVID-19 numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health’s daily report, for Monday, Jan. 4:


• 143 new deaths and 3,953 new cases.

• Pandemic totals are 7,168 deaths and 612,250 cases.

• 87% of case totals were listed as “inactive/recovered.”

• New deaths by age: 55 in the 81-plus group; 47 in the 71-80 group; 25 in the 61-70 group; 12 in the 51-60 group; three in the 41-50 group; and one in the 31=40 group.

Northeast Tennessee

• 20 deaths and 265 new cases for the eight-county region. The new cases pushed the region past the 40,000 point, to 40,087 cases since the pandemic began.

New deaths (and to-date totals) by county: seven in Sullivan (188); five in Greene (98); four in Washington (169); three in Hawkins (60); and one in Carter (89).

Three counties had no new deaths (pandemic totals held at): Unicoi (40); Johnson (28); and Hancock (five).

New cases by county: 73 in Sullivan; 71 in Washington; 50 in Greene; 33 in Hawkins; 19 in Carter: nine in Unicoi; nine in Johnson; and one in Hancock.

Active cases by county: 1,292 in Washington; 1,209 in Sullivan; 827 in Greene; 583 in Hawkins; 581 in Carter; 191 in Unicoi; 109 in Johnson; and 41 in Hancock.

Positive rates

Statewide: 21.57% of the 14,598 new test results reported on Monday by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Ballad Health: 30.5% over the past seven days, for the health system’s 21-county service area, including Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

COVID-19 in SWVA: LENOWISCO daily cases near 50

Far Southwest Virginia’s daily COVID-19 cases stayed below 50, according to Monday’s state data report.

Cases among staff at Thomas Walker High School in Lee County also have delayed that school’s return to in-person classes.

Lee County School Superintendent Brian Austin on Monday said that Thomas Walker was the only county school affected by the decision to delay in-person classes until Jan. 11.

“All other LCPS sites will continue with in-person instruction,” Austin said. “Administration will continue to monitor the impact of the ongoing pandemic on operations at each school and will work with the local health department to best serve our students and community.”

Lee County now operates on a four-day in-person class schedule with Fridays set for remote learning.

The Virginia Department of Health (www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus) said the LENOWISCO Health District reported 48 COVID-19-related cases and one related death for totals of 5,157 and 128 deaths during the pandemic.

Wise County saw 19 cases for totals of 2,151 and 60 deaths. Lee County had 16 cases for 1,566 and 30 deaths.

Scott County had 10 cases and one death for 1,252 and 36 deaths. Norton added three cases for 178 and one death.

The VDH reported 3,771 new cases and eight deaths statewide in the prior 24 hours for pandemic totals of 367,536 cases and 5,132 deaths.

The statewide testing rate for people with nasal swab and antigen tests in Monday’s VDH report was 5,261,537 of 8.63 million residents, or 60.97%. For nasal swab testing only, 4,383,477 people have been tested to date, or 50.79%. In the LENOWISCO district, 33,463 of the region’s 86,471 residents have been tested via nasal swab sample for COVID-19, or 38.7%.

The seven-day average rate of positive PCR test results in the LENOWISCO district in Monday’s report decreased from 32.5% to 32.4%. The statewide seven-day positivity rate rose from 15.3% to 15.8%.

Red Onion State Prison had 25 inmate cases and decreased one case for 2 active staff/contractor cases, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap had one inmate case and dropped seven cases for 12 active staff/contractor cases. Wise Correctional Center near Coeburn remained at 24 inmate cases and dropped to no active staff/contractor case.

According to Monday’s VDH pandemic measures dashboard, daily case incidence in the far southwest region of Virginia — including the LENOWISCO Health District — was ranked as fluctuating after an eight-day increase in daily case rates. The far southwest region ranking for percent positivity of COVID-19 testing results was classed as fluctuating based on an overall five-day decrease in that measure.

All four school systems in the LENOWISCO district were ranked as highest-risk based on the 14-day case incidence rate in the district. For seven-day case incidence, Wise and Lee counties schools were ranked highest-risk with Scott County Schools higher-risk and Norton City schools lowest-risk.

Where to be tested

Do you think you might have COVID-19? Local health departments provide free testing.

The LENOWISCO Health Department, which covers Norton and Lee, Wise and Scott counties, posts regular updates on testing sites across the district and offers free COVID-19 tests at its county offices. Those seeking a test must call in advance for an appointment. Contact numbers for the county offices are:

• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011

• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312

• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000

Additional testing and COVID-19 precaution information can be found at the LENOWISCO Health District’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Lenowisco.

In Southwest Virginia, online resources are available to help evaluate whether residents might be infected and where to get a COVID-19 test. The Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDCHECK (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck/) can walk a user through symptoms they may be experiencing and help direct them to their local health department office or other available testing sites.

Approximately 745 Christmas food box recipients lined up in downtown Rogersville Saturday morning to receive their box via drive-by pickup at the ministry's Shepherd Center. Volunteers from the Rogersville Heritage Association's Heritage Lites, the youth of the Rogersville United Methodist Church, and members from Faith Assembly helped load food boxes into vehicles. all photos by Sheldon Livesay.