Wilson County is looking to ramp up its COVID-19 vaccination effort as health care workers began administering the first Moderna vaccines on Wednesday.

Frontline workers have been receiving shots of Pfizer’s vaccine since Friday, and the Tennessee Department of Health says that represents approximately 0.2% of the county’s population as of Tuesday.

“We do have a point of distribution located and confirmed by the Department of Health, which will be enacted starting Wednesday,” WEMA Director Joey Cooper said during the Wilson County Commission’s meeting Monday. “We do have particular times and dates, but we’re not going to release those at this time for security reasons. But that will begin this week.”

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said the plan is for other high-risk groups to receive a vaccine in phases before the general public. Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital has estimated it could be months before they become widely available.

“That first group is going to go to people that take care of people, is the easiest way for me to tell you that,” he said. “The second group of people that’s going to get it are the people that are adults that have two or more of the underlying conditions (that increase their risk). The third group of people is going to be your critical infrastructure people, which is like your teachers and that particular area. And then your fourth group is everybody else.”

Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan said his agency is working closely with WEMA to facilitate vaccine distribution to those groups.

“A big part of this vaccination thing is security,” he said. “We’ll be securing all the distribution areas, the health departments and things like that, so we’re working with them hand-in-hand and they’re doing a great job in that.”

The vaccines also need to be taken in two doses: Pfizer’s on a 21-day cycle and Moderna’s on a 28-day cycle. That means it will take that much longer to work through each phase.

In the meantime, Wilson County remains under a mask mandate in an effort to curb the virus’s spread. Residents are also asked to practice social distancing, frequent hand washing and other preventative measures recommended by the CDC as the county’s case numbers continue running high.

“COVID right now is really making an impact on the school district,” Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright said. “While we were most concerned, and always concerned, about our staff and the impact there, we’re now seeing it hit our students at an alarming rate. And in the last week, we lost a parent that had a three-week bout with COVID. For anyone saying that we’re still not seeing the impact, we’re seeing it and we’re feeling it.”

Hutto’s office is attempting to combat the virus through a campaign asking local businesses to unify in wearing masks, and local law enforcement agencies will be displaying road signs in support of prevention measures.

“We’re doing our best to get the word out,” he said, adding that the Lebanon Wilson Chamber of Commerce has been working with businesses to record video PSAs. “We want our businesses to thrive during this difficult time, and we felt like that was a good way to get the message out. We’ve also done PSAs with people who’ve had the virus.”

County officials are optimistic that the vaccines will help turn the corner on the pandemic, and the Wilson County Commission authorized up to $43.5 million in bonds on Monday for the jail expansion project postponed earlier this year.

“They’re ready to go,” Hutto said. “We will sign a contract with the construction company and try to get them to work as soon as possible, and it’s about an 18-month turnaround.”

Expanding the jail was a top priority for Hutto’s administration heading into 2020 to address an increasing inmate population as the county grows. An adequate facilities tax increase passed in 2019 is projected as the project’s primary funding mechanism.

“The first time we put it out to bid we were expecting anywhere between $35 to 40 million,” Hutto said. “We received one bid at $50 million, so we decided to go back to the drawing board and make some changes — then the tornado and COVID hit.”

This time around, the county accepted a $39 million offer from among three bidders. The additional $4.5 million the commission approved is to cover two new WEMA stations and issuance fees, and the total will be adjusted down if the project comes in below the full $43.5 million.

The Wilson County Commission typically meets at 7 p.m. on the third Monday each month, but the body’s next meeting will need to be rescheduled because it falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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