For at least seven days over the past two weeks, the Shelby County Health Department closed COVID-19 vaccination sites and cancelled appointments due to inclement weather. Despite the cancellations, Shelby County residents without appointments reported on multiple occasions that they were able to obtain vaccines thanks to tips from social media channels like Twitter threads, Facebook and WhatsApp groups.
Benji Smith, a ballroom dance instructor who owns the DanceSmiths studio, said he received word that vaccines at risk of expiring were available through a Facebook group for residents of the High Point Terrace neighborhood on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
Smith said he shared the information – which stated that doses of COVID vaccines were available at the Shelby County Building on Mullins Station Rd. – on his business’ Facebook page, as well as different Facebook groups of which he is a member.
Smith said that when he got to the site, a worker told him that vaccines were available to anyone and that he did not need an appointment. Smith also claims he was asked to share the information about the availability with as many people as possible.
“I said, ‘You have no idea what you’re asking for, but I’m going to do that.’ I put [the information] in front of about 8,000 people,” Smith said. “I got bunches and bunches of thank-you’s from people I didn’t even know.”
Smith said this included people who had appointments that had been cancelled due to the weather.
The Shelby County Health Department drew criticism last week when its director, Dr. Alisa Haushalter, disclosed that the health department had t o discard 1,315 vaccine doses that had expired, a mix-up regarding the expiration date for certain doses.
While Haushalter confirmed that doses had been wasted, she also said the health department was able to administer over 2,000 vaccines last week, despite the winter weather conditions. Haushalter said that the doses went to teachers with Shelby County Schools (SCS), as well as county inmates.
SCS teachers and inmates were not the only parties vaccinated last week, according to accounts shared across various online groups. University of Memphis student Addy Enlow said she knew of several people who were vaccinated as a result of her Facebook posts.
“I told all of my classmates,” Enlow said. “When I posted it in the Facebook group, I had several people message me telling me that not only did they get vaccinated, but their entire families did.”
For Dr. Charles L. Hughes, director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College, the process of using personal networks to disseminate vaccine information is inherently problematic. “These incidents indicate how completely broken the system is,” Hughes said. “We
have now had at least two situations where there has been this big surplus and the response has been this kind of informal network of communication.
“The reason why this, to me, is about justice is because nationally we have plenty of evidence to suggest the vaccine rates are disproportionately among people of privilege, and I think it’s a racial justice issue in a city where there doesn’t seem to be an effort to communicate these things among black community networks.”
While Hughes acknowledges that there may likely have been people who were vaccinated on these days who met the qualifications for the current vaccination phase, he maintains that the informal communication networks inherently lend themselves to inequity.
“If the number one way to get vaccinated in these instances is to just know the right people,” he said, “then the question is what people are hearing about this and what are they doing once they get the information.”
Dr. Hughes said that while he questions the systems – on the national, state and local levels – that are in place to administer vaccinations, he wants to see everyone get vaccinated.
For Smith, who said he has received hate messages in response to his Facebook posts, the purpose of spreading the information was to help others get vaccinated. “I had no control over who decided to open it up,” Smith said. “What I did was try to spread it to the most people.
“I stayed at the site for three hours answering questions on Facebook: How long is the line? How many more doses do they have? I don’t understand why someone isn’t doing this anyway.”
The Shelby County Health Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
Beginning this week, Shelby County residents aged 65 and older will be eligible to be vaccinated, as well as members of risk-based phase 1b, which includes K-12 teachers and childcare staff.
First and second dose appointments will be made available on the health department’s website, but if you do not have internet access, you may call the vaccination hotline number at 901-222-7468 (SHOT) from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week.