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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris responded to a backup that had people waiting in line for hours for a COVID vaccination, only to be sent away when the vaccine ran out.

He said crowds Tuesday at the Pipkin Building might have been larger because of people from outside the county, even outside the state, were seeking the vaccine. And he said the county had an obligation to serve them.

“Yesterday was a tragic set of circumstances and we are working hard to address it,” Harris said. “No one should have to wait in line for an appointment for more than an hour or ninety minutes. And no one with an appointment should be turned away without receiving the vaccine.”

WREG tried to ask the Shelby County Health Department how that could happen when people had appointments.

They said no one was available to talk with us, but sent a statement saying they tried to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible Tuesday. They said more people showed up than they expected and it led to increased wait time.

Harris says the demand for the vaccine is so strong that there is just not enough supply. And it seems people are coming here from all over.

“We sit on a border where folks from Mississippi might come here. Vaccine tourism is real. Folks in Arkansas might come here. Vaccine tourism is real,” Harris said. “And we want to accomodate as many people as possible.”

But Harris said the county can’t stop people from getting the vaccine. 

“Everybody deserves the vaccine. All lives are equally valuable,” Harris said. “We are working hard to make sure everyone has the vaccine.”

He said thousands of people with appointments have gotten them in a short amount of time — it just didn’t happen Tuesday, even though they tried to police the lines.

“I am not ready to close the door on the walk-ups as it were, the non-appointments,” he said. “I don’t know that we could. That is something that has been kinda prepounded to us. That we have to kinda take care of anyone and everyone, including surrounding communities and even out of state communities.” 

Harris says a new stand-by list called VaxQueue will also help, allowing people to add their name to a list to be notified when surplus vaccine shots are available.

The health department says it is also adding additional staff to vaccine locations.