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

Registered nurses Katrina McCord (left) and Elham Roshanraun (right) work a line of motorists at a free drive-thru COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the BrandsMart USA while coronavirus testing surges. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

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Registered nurses Katrina McCord (left) and Elham Roshanraun (right) work a line of motorists at a free drive-thru COVID-19 DeKalb Board of Health testing site located by the BrandsMart USA while coronavirus testing surges. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

A second COVID-19 vaccine started arriving in Georgia, raising hopes for a slowing down or even an ending of the pandemic on the horizon. But the Moderna vaccine couldn’t come soon enough to quell a surging number of new coronavirus infections or to prevent a crush of COVID-19 patients overwhelming several hospitals.

With coronavirus infections spiking across the Sun Belt, the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report warned that Georgia will soon see more fatalities as cases and hospitalizations climb.

“This surge must be met with aggressive public mitigation inclusive of safe public options, like outdoor dining,” said the most recent report.

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In this file photo, the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination waits to be administered at the Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton County Health Department’s district office in Lawrenceville. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

In this file photo, the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination waits to be administered at the Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton County Health Department’s district office in Lawrenceville. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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In this file photo, the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination waits to be administered at the Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton County Health Department’s district office in Lawrenceville. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

More than 9 out of 10 Georgia counties have moderate to high rates of spread, and 83% of the state’s counties are in the red zone, according to the latest report.

The task force said Georgia ranked 26th, or in the middle nationally, for new cases, and 18th for test positivity. Earlier this month, Georgia ranked 47th — or fifth best out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. — for new cases.

Georgia’s worsening ranking appears to reflect not only a rise in infections but also the addition of cases detected by rapid antigen tests in Georgia’s tally. The recent inclusion of antigen cases provides a clearer picture of Georgia’s status as more states add these “probable” cases to their official counts. But it’s unclear how many states still do not report antigen cases.

Gov. Brian Kemp said the state is reopening the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta to accommodate 60 patients through January.

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

A second vaccine arrives in Georgia

The state started receiving the Moderna vaccine and is expected to receive about 174,000 doses of the vaccine within a few days. The vaccine became the second granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. One developed by Pfizer-BioNTech was given the green light earlier this month.

Both vaccines use what’s called messenger RNA to train the immune system to recognize and fight COVID-19. Studies have shown both are about 95% effective and can produce similar short-term side effects. Both also require two shots.

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Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination, while Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey look on at Grady Hospital on Dec. 17, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination, while Gov. Brian Kemp and  Dr. Kathleen Toomey look on at Grady Hospital on Dec. 17, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination, while Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey look on at Grady Hospital on Dec. 17, 2020. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

But the storage requirements for the two are different. And that’s where the Moderna vaccine may have an edge: Unlike Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, the Moderna vaccine does not have to be stored at minus 70°C, but can tolerate a much warmer minus 20°C, which is standard for most hospital and pharmacy freezers.

The Moderna shipments will be sent directly to providers, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Department spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said some facilities requested Moderna because of the easier storage and handling. Additionally, Moderna will ship a minimum of 100 doses, while Pfizer-BioNTech’s minimum is set at 975 doses.

The state’s first allotment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 84,000, and close to 60,000 additional doses are also expected. As of Friday, 125,775 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been shipped to Georgia.

Confusion arose as Georgia and other states learned they would receive fewer allotments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than anticipated. U.S. Army Gen. Gustave Perna, Operation Warp Speed’s chief operations officer and who’s leading the federal government’s vaccine distribution effort, told reporters that “the forecasted number was one (number). The actual allocation was another. At the end of the day, it was a fair and equitable distribution across the whole country.”

The DPH said the plan is for the vaccinations at nursing homes to begin on Monday. CVS and Walgreens have contracted with the federal government to administer those vaccines.

DPH also launched a vaccine dashboard, which, similar to the coronavirus dashboard, will track the number of providers enrolled to give vaccines, as well as the number of vaccines requested and number of vaccines administered. The link to the vaccine dashboard is on the homepage of the DPH website (dph.georgia.gov).

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE
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In this file photo, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) receives the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for administration in Georgia. CONTRIBUTED

In this file photo, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) receives the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for administration in Georgia. CONTRIBUTED

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In this file photo, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) receives the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for administration in Georgia. CONTRIBUTED

Vaccine availability extremely limited at first

For now, vaccine shots are being limited to health care workers, people living and working in long-term care facilities, and some federal elected officials.

There are about 537,000 health care workers in Georgia, according to the state health department.

Federal Operation Warp Speed officials said they envision more Americans being able to get vaccinated by late February or early March.

DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey told reporters it will be at least a month before the next group of Georgians listed in the state’s plan, which includes the elderly and police officers, can get vaccinated.

As the vaccine becomes more available early next year, many questions remain to be answered about how the doses will be rolled out. Will providers determine who is eligible among the various priority groups? How do essential workers, whether they are police officers or grocery store employees, get the vaccine? Could they show proof of employment at a pharmacy or would they need their doctor to provide it?

The DPH’s Nydam said the state health department is having discussions with public health districts across the state about developing plans for notifying the public when the vaccine is available to them and the logistics of how to get vaccinated. There may also be guidance from federal authorities and input from medical associations, according to DPH.

Staff writer Carrie Teegardin contributed to this article.