Georgia leaders face calls to expand vaccine access, but say supply limited

GAINESVILLE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp answers a reporter's question on Feb. 15, 2021 about the state's COVID-19 vaccination efforts after meeting with several area Hispanic business and community leaders on the topic and about vaccine hesitancy. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.
GAINESVILLE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp answers a reporter's question on Feb. 15, 2021 about the state's COVID-19 vaccination efforts after meeting with several area Hispanic business and community leaders on the topic and about vaccine hesitancy. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Georgia leaders grappled Monday with the growing demands to expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility while addressing vaccine hesitancy among workers in the state’s poultry industry.

Meeting with Hispanic business and community leaders in Gainesville, Gov. Brian Kemp said that vaccine shipments from the federal government will remain at the current levels of about 154,000 doses a week for the next few weeks. That will limit the state’s ability to expand the list of groups eligible to get vaccinated, he said.

Still, pressure has mounted on Kemp in recent days to expand eligibility to frontline essential workers, such as grocery store and public transit employees and teachers. Vaccinations are currently limited to Georgians 65 and older, health care and long-term care workers and police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

ExploreKemp says Atlanta’s teachers can’t move up the vaccine line

“The easiest thing for me to do is to expand access and allow everyone to get the shot,” Kemp told reporters. “All that is going to do is put a big burden on our public health people, our phone systems, our websites, the folks who are trying to schedule appointments. It’s going to be disheartening to the citizens that would be getting an appointment and the appointment may be a month away or two months away.”

The demands to expand eligibility come as Georgia faces a threat that adds to the urgency of vaccinating as many people as possible.

DeKalb County Board of Health medical worker Lisa Bridges administers a COVID-19 vaccination shot during a DeKalb County Board of Health and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. COVID-19 vaccination event at the Lou Walker Senior Center in Stonecrest on Feb. 10. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
DeKalb County Board of Health medical worker Lisa Bridges administers a COVID-19 vaccination shot during a DeKalb County Board of Health and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. COVID-19 vaccination event at the Lou Walker Senior Center in Stonecrest on Feb. 10. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

The highly contagious variant virus originally discovered in the United Kingdom is likely spreading quickly throughout Georgia, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner. As of Monday, 45 cases have been detected, according to the latest figures from the Department of Public Health. While the cases have been primarily concentrated in metro Atlanta, one case was detected in central Georgia, in Houston County, and another in Catoosa County, along the Georgia/Tennessee border.

The variant’s true spread, though, is not reflected in those numbers, Toomey has said, because of the limited surveillance system for detecting variants.

ExploreU.S. in ‘eye of the hurricane’ as COVID variants spread, expert says

Because of the looming variant threat, state officials also have been tackling vaccine hesitancy among some groups.

In Gainesville Monday, Kemp and his team spent about a hour discussing potential plans to distribute the vaccine directly to poultry plants or through pharmacies.

In a recent visit to Hall County, Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest and graduate students from the Rollins School of Public Health provided COVID-19 tests to some 450 poultry plant workers, family members and others. Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University.
In a recent visit to Hall County, Emory epidemiologist Jodie Guest and graduate students from the Rollins School of Public Health provided COVID-19 tests to some 450 poultry plant workers, family members and others. Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University.

Credit: Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University

Credit: Photo by Jack Kearse at Emory University

Georgia, the nation’s largest poultry producer, has about 33,000 people working in processing jobs, many of them Hispanic. However, many are hesitant about getting vaccinated, saying they don’t think it’s safe, said Juan Carlos Lomas Vital, who owns three poultry plants and attended Monday’s discussion with the governor.

After the session, Vital said Kemp and others adequately addressed their questions about vaccine safety.

The state also has been under criticism that vaccine isn’t being distributed equitably, particularly to Blacks, Hispanics and other communities of color. To provide more updated information on vaccines, DPH announced Monday it was launching a new dashboard, which will update daily at 3 p.m. The dashboard will break out detailed information about how doses are distributed, including race and ethnicity data of vaccine recipients.

Monday’s dashboard showed that about 660,000 whites had been vaccinated, about four times the number of Black Georgians, the second highest group. The race was not known for more than 100,000 recipients.

Georgia is seeing the number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths edge down from the post-holiday surge.

ExploreCoronavirus in Georgia: COVID-19 Dashboard

Still, on Monday the state was closing in on a staggering 14,000 confirmed deaths, an increase of almost 4,000 over the past month.

In Other News