Georgia leaders grapple with mounting frustration over vaccination campaign

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to members of the press to give an update on the COVID-19 vaccine at the Georgia State Capitol building on Friday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to members of the press to give an update on the COVID-19 vaccine at the Georgia State Capitol building on Friday. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Facing mounting complaints from Georgia seniors anxious to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Brian Kemp on Friday announced that the state health department’s website will launch an information hub so people can see where they can go to book appointments.

That should speed up administration of the vaccine, Kemp said, indicating he is frustrated himself with the rollout. Some 70% of the state’s doses still have not been administered.

Yet the governor acknowledged there’s not enough supply for everyone now eligible for the vaccine, and he asked Georgians for patience.

“This has been, and will continue to be, a heavy lift for the state of Georgia,” he said.

ExploreGeorgia hospitals are struggling as coronvirus cases rise and vaccinations lag

A Kemp spokeswoman said that DPH was working to have the hub with updated information on its website by early next week.

His announcement came as the state Friday shattered its all-time high for net new confirmed and suspected coronavirus infections and as hospitals see more COVID-19 patients than ever before. And public health experts fear Georgia’s third coronavirus wave has yet to crest.

To try to get ahead of the problem, little more than a week ago Kemp and state Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey had announced that the state was expanding the list of those eligible to be inoculated.

In addition to health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities, they said Georgians 65 and older could also receive the vaccine starting Monday — provided there is an adequate supply.

Local health departments then became overwhelmed with requests for vaccination appointments. Phones went unanswered and technical problems glitched websites, while people who walked in were turned away.

“Apparently our website keeps crashing due to people trying to make vaccine appointments,” Dr. David Holland, chief clinical officer at the Fulton Board of Health, tweeted Friday. “I’m happy to see the demand, but ouch.”

Meanwhile, the public was left scrambling for even basic information.

“Given the situation, I’m a bit shocked that there aren’t wall-to-wall (public service announcements) explaining where to go and what to do,” said one Fulton County resident who was trying to get her husband an appointment.

“I assume that they knew this was coming,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “We’ve all been hunkered down for months hoping and praying for a vaccine and now it’s here and the general public is in the dark.”

Amber Schmidtke, a former assistant professor of microbiology in the Mercer University School of Medicine, said she heard from many elderly residents having trouble finding places to get vaccinated.

“It’s harming public trust in our ability to get people vaccinated,” she said.

When state leaders announced that older residents could get the vaccine, she said, they should have had a more structured logistical plan. Schmidtke suggested leaders use the Georgia Emergency Management Agency or the National Guard to assist, noting they have experience in dealing with complex logistical matters. She also said Georgia should create a social media push to share information about vaccine resources.

Others pointed out that while the state expanded eligibility by more than 1.5 million people, many health care workers and residents and staff at long-term care facilities are still waiting to get vaccine.

As of Friday, state officials reported 167,057 doses have been administered to Georgians. That’s about 30% of the doses the state has received, state data show, and given Georgia one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.

State officials have blamed the problem in part on delays by some providers in reporting how many shots they have administered. Kemp reiterated that point Friday.

At Friday’s press conference, the governor said that starting this weekend there will be four mass vaccination sites for health care workers in Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

The state has the capacity to vaccinate about 80,000 people a week, Kemp said, not including vaccinations being done by nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Meanwhile, on Friday, DPH reported a record high 13,296 net new confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases. The state also reported 80 net new confirmed deaths and another four deemed “probable” COVID-19 deaths.

Nearly a third of all patients in Georgia hospitals have COVID-19 and more than 5,500 people were hospitalized Friday, another record.

With hospitals overflowing, public health experts outside Georgia government have called for closing or restricting operations where people cannot wear masks indoors, such as restaurants and bars.

“Aggressive mitigation must be used to match a more aggressive virus,” said the latest report by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, dated Sunday.

But Kemp dismissed a question from a reporter who asked whether it was time to implement new restrictions to curb the disease.

“We have other states that have taken more aggressive steps and their hospitals are overflowing, too,” Kemp said. “We can deal with this virus. We can fight our way through it.”

Staff writers Yamil Berard and Ariel Hart contributed to this report.

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