A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

A file photo of COVID-19 vaccinations at the Lou Walker Senior Center in Stonecrest. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A file photo of COVID-19 vaccinations at the Lou Walker Senior Center in Stonecrest. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Georgians as young as 55, along with those with high-risk medical conditions, will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine starting Monday.

With the newly expanded pool, the majority of Georgia adults now likely fit into one of the categories approved to receive the vaccines.

People with a spectrum of health conditions that are all too common here have been added, ranging from high blood pressure and asthma to cancer, diabetes and heart conditions. Pregnant women also are included. Also newly eligible are those who are overweight or obese. About two-thirds of Georgians would fit the definition, according to one federal study.

State officials didn’t announce any screening criteria or enforcement methods, leaving it to local providers to ensure that recipients qualify.

Soon, it might not matter: Gov. Brian Kemp said he hopes to expand vaccine eligibility to all adults by early April.

There’s more good news: The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and suspected cases is down nearly 80% since the peak on Jan. 11, and the lowest point since early November. The number of people currently hospitalized in Georgia for COVID-19 is down by nearly three-quarters since the peak in January, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data shows.

Still, Georgia ranked fifth in the nation for new cases per 100,000 people for the seven days that ended March 4, and ninth for the rate of new hospitalizations, according to a recent federal report.

Here’s a look at major developments related to COVID-19 over the past week.

In this file photo, Kroger pharmacist Michelle Blalock discusses the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as Governor Brian Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey tour the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kroger pharmacy in Cherokee Plaza in Brookhaven. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
In this file photo, Kroger pharmacist Michelle Blalock discusses the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as Governor Brian Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey tour the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Kroger pharmacy in Cherokee Plaza in Brookhaven. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

More doses coming

The state has been rapidly expanding the pool of those eligible for vaccines as the federal government has provided an influx of doses.

Last week, the White House announced plans to administer 42,000 doses a week at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. The doses are on top of the state’s regular allocation of vaccines. The site, which is expected to be up and running in the next two weeks, will operate seven days a week for an eight-week period. Vaccine eligibility will follow state guidelines, officials said.

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the federal government will purchase an additional 100 million doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And, in his first prime-time address to the nation on Thursday, he said he would direct states to make all American adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1.

In Georgia, now eligible for vaccination are: teachers, school staffers, day care workers, adults with intellectual disabilities, parents of children with “complex medical conditions,” those 65 and older, health care workers, the residents and staff of long-term care facilities and first responders.

With the newly expanded pool included, 92% of all Georgia’s deaths involved people who fit into one of the now eligible categories, Kemp said.

The state is preparing to open new mass vaccination sites in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties to bolster the public health infrastructure. That’s in addition to existing centers in metro Atlanta, Albany, Macon and Habersham County in northeast Georgia.

ExplorePeople can sign up for the vaccine here
In this file photo, Mill Creek High School nurse Kathy Catapano reads through emails at her desk in the school’s clinic in Hoschton. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
In this file photo, Mill Creek High School nurse Kathy Catapano reads through emails at her desk in the school’s clinic in Hoschton. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE
Westbury Medical Care and Rehab patient Johnny Simmons embraces his 99-year-old mother, Lucille Simmons, during a visit at the medical facility in Jackson. This was the first time in a while that the two were able to embrace during a visit. Johnny’s sister Betty Crowder holds his mother steady. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Westbury Medical Care and Rehab patient Johnny Simmons embraces his 99-year-old mother, Lucille Simmons, during a visit at the medical facility in Jackson. This was the first time in a while that the two were able to embrace during a visit. Johnny’s sister Betty Crowder holds his mother steady. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Relaxing bans for nursing home visits

Within days, Georgians could be visiting their loved ones in nursing homes across the state, easing one of the most painful restrictions brought on by the year-long COVID-19 pandemic.

The Biden administration said that, with nursing homes’ vaccination rates increasing and new infections plummeting, most should reopen to visitors — with limits.

Nursing home advocates said new rules would be conditional on the state relaxing its own emergency bans on nursing home visitation, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Kemp, Mallory Blount, said the governor intends to do that.

After that, the Department of Public Health is expected to lay out rules and procedures, nursing home officials said. The homes then would take a couple of days to acquire more masks and ramp up.

“We’re very glad,” said Ginny Helms, president of LeadingAge Georgia, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of nonprofit organizations that provide housing and other services to the elderly.

“We felt like ... the residents had been suffering from isolation, which led to both physical and emotional hardships,” she said. “And families were very concerned because they couldn’t lay their eyes on loved ones. Right now, everyone is very excited.”

The visits could take place regardless of the vaccination status of a resident or visitor, if the nursing homes meet several conditions. First, for indoor visits, a nursing home must have 70% or more of its residents vaccinated. Most do, as vaccination acceptance has been very high among patients. Advocates say one of the primary reasons for that is that residents understood vaccination was key to getting their visitors back.

Second, for a facility to qualify for indoor visits, the surrounding community can’t be among the uncontrolled COVID-19 hotspots. The rules relax only for nursing homes in counties where less than 10% of COVID-19 tests come back positive. As of March 8, positivity rates were too high in 15 of Georgia’s 159 counties.

Staff writers J. Scott Trubey and Ariel Hart contributed to this report.

In Other News