Gov. Brian Kemp, under fire for the state’s lagging COVID-19 vaccination numbers, on Tuesday pushed back and touted a roster of imminent measures his administration was undertaking to get more needles into Georgians’ arms to halt the pandemic’s spread.
In a nod to the overwhelming demand in metro Atlanta —in contrast to other parts of the state, where open appointments sat idle—Kemp said the state would shift dose allocations to places where they would more likely be used. After already opening vaccination to the majority of adults this week, he added judges and court personnel to the list of those eligible. He and state leaders at his side also pleaded with rural residents to make appointments for shots.
“The media and those playing pandemic politics will continue to focus on whichever statistic of the day paints Georgia in a bad light,” Kemp said, saying his administration’s relative success vaccinating seniors gets short shrift. “But I will tell you I’m not worried about politics. I’m worried about following the science and the data about who is most vulnerable.”
Kemp took aim at federal data showing Georgia with one of the nation’s worst vaccination rates. He contends that the CDC numbers are wrong because 250,000 doses distributed directly to pharmacies under a federal program were not included in Georgia’s vaccination data although the doses were given out.
As of Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Georgia had administered 26,468 vaccine doses per 100,000 residents. That was the worst record of any state, and the worst of any U.S.-controlled place except for Puerto Rico and the Federated States of Micronesia. Georgia falls several spots below Mississippi, which administered 30,447 doses per 100,000 people to date, according to the CDC.
The federal pharmacy data flaw cited by Kemp occurred nationwide, so it was unclear whether fixing it would improve Georgia’s standing.
Kemp also confirmed the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency would open and run five new mass vaccination centers starting Wednesday, as previously announced. That will make for a total of nine across the state administering up to 45,000 doses per week.
The governor also warned those health care providers hoarding doses in fear of not having second doses on hand or for other reasons could see future doses go elsewhere. His office is sending letters to those providers, telling them they must administer at least 80% of the doses they receive.
“The Biden administration continues to provide consistent vaccine distribution information to the state so there is no reason for providers to withhold doses,” he said.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
The response came as Kemp is being lashed by critics who said the state bungled distribution, that the system for getting appointments is confusing, and that too little has been done to get vaccines to all of the communities that have had to bear the worst of the pandemic. Critics took particular umbrage at his office’s suggestion Monday that metro Atlantans consider traveling to South Georgia to get some of the open appointments there.
Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s opponent in the 2018 governor’s race, said the state was “just failing at its job” in protecting more vulnerable residents from the disease.
On Tuesday, a pair of organizations founded by Abrams launched a “Count Me In” campaign aimed at helping Black, Latinx and other minority communities with the vaccination process.
While Kemp and his aides have cited a roster of challenges beyond their control, including the state’s public health structure and vaccine hesitancy, Abrams said the real issue was making the vaccines reachable.
“Hesitancy is not the challenge – access is,” Abrams said.
“Instead of sending people from metro Atlanta to southwest Georgia, there should instead be a response where we meet people where they are,” she said. “You go to where the people are instead of leaving people to find their own way.”
Others voiced frustration at the state’s welter of vaccination registration sites, some of which aren’t linked to and can’t communicate with one another. People are getting appointments through one website and not canceling with another. People wanting an appointment that might come from one website never know it’s available as they’re waitlisted by another website.
Neither Kemp nor other state leaders were able at the press event to say how many people were now on waiting lists at the various registration sites to get a vaccination appointment. But more than 19,000 people were wait-listed by the Department of Public Health website on Tuesday, an agency spokeswoman said. At the same time, the agency has 36,870 appointments open, indicating that open slots are not in locations where people are seeking them.
Each local public health office also may have its own separate registration system. On Monday, the one run by Fulton County made an IT error and mistakenly double-booked hundreds of appointments.
Greg Kavouras said he was one of them. He waited three hours Tuesday at a Fulton County site before he said he and many others left. “If Fulton County and the state of Georgia really wants to administer these shots, they must greatly improve the delivery system,” he said.
Kemp announced the five state-run centers earlier this month, and a large federal center expected for Atlanta was announced on March 5. Only two of the nine GEMA centers are in metro Atlanta. The five new GEMA centers are to open in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties. Late last month, state sites opened in Albany, Clarkesville, Hapeville and Macon.
An opening date for federal management of the center at Mercedes-Benz Stadium has not been announced.
Kemp’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, acknowledged the problems created by having separate websites. She said DPH was already locked into its Microsoft vaccination registration system when GEMA “chose to go a different route.” Putting all that aside, like Kemp and the other aides present she simply asked Georgians to make a vaccination appointment if they can.
“This is going to be our freedom to get back to the Georgia we want to be,” Toomey said.
AJC reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.