Georgia health experts, influencers raise alarm about low COVID vaccination rate

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia's public health commissioner, speaks at Morehouse College about urgency to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Credit: Ty Tagami

Credit: Ty Tagami

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia's public health commissioner, speaks at Morehouse College about urgency to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Medical experts, pastors, a former NFL player and other influencers gathered at Morehouse School of Medicine for a live online event Thursday in which they aired concerns about low vaccination rates amid a fast-spreading variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“All of the vaccines are safe and effective and nothing is more dangerous than a serious case of COVID itself,” said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state health commissioner and one of a dozen speakers who expressed concerns about lingering hesitancy around vaccination. Nearly every person who is hospitalized or dies due to infection now is unvaccinated, she added.

These experts fear a rise in infections as students, many of them unvaccinated, return to school next month. As the disease spreads, it can evolve, potentially diminishing the effectiveness of the vaccines, panelists noted at the event co-hosted by Morehouse School of Medicine and Peach State Health Plan.

The highly contagious delta variant now accounts for about 70% of all new cases, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday, when just 44.8% of Georgians over 12 were fully vaccinated. No vaccines are authorized for children under age 12.

Vaccination rates remain low due in part to fears — unwarranted, experts say — that the vaccines are harmful. Among the top concerns Dr. Michelle Nichols of the Morehouse School of Medicine has heard: the vaccines affect fertility, alter genes and cause COVID-19 infection. These “myths” are all untrue, she said, adding that she was vaccinated in December.

In a nod to the influence of personal relationships and social media, the organizers invited preachers and retired NFL player Harry Douglas IV in hopes of broadcasting their message farther. Douglas, who said he is vaccinated, advised that people get medical advice from sources who understand the science.

“You can’t listen to Aunt Pearl who’s not a doctor and doesn’t know anything about what’s going on with COVID,” said Douglas, who played for the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee Titans.

Toomey said too few doctors, a widely trusted source, are administering the vaccines in their offices, something she hopes to change. The state has tried to make it logistically easier for them by delivering fewer vials — as few as 60 per delivery — of vaccine to ease fears about spoilage.

Yet only 795 physicians, 153 of them pediatricians, have enrolled as providers. There were about 25,000 practicing physicians in the state last year.

Still, vaccines are readily available at pharmacies and other sites. State Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King, a major general in the U.S. Army National Guard, waived his vaccination card saying he felt “liberated” when he got jabbed. “You feel truly free.”