Georgia teachers, police wait for early shot at COVID-19 vaccine

Cobb County EMS Division Chief Nick Adams received a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services is administering the vaccine voluntarily to its staff, including firefighters. Credit: Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services
Cobb County EMS Division Chief Nick Adams received a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services is administering the vaccine voluntarily to its staff, including firefighters. Credit: Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services

Credit: Credit: Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services

Credit: Credit: Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services

Fulton County Sheriff-elect Patrick Labat knows what it’s like to have COVID-19. He was one of several newly elected officials who tested positive for the disease in December after attending a conference by the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Now recovered, Labat said he’s excited about a vaccine becoming available and will take it as soon as its made available to him.

Labat is among thousands of public workers waiting to receive the drug in phase 1B, the second phase of Georgia’s effort to administer the vaccine while it remains in short supply.

Frontline healthcare workers, including emergency medical services personnel, are in the first wave of Georgians now being vaccinated as part of phase 1A. Teachers, firefighters and police officers and people who are 75 and older and those 65 and older with significant comorbidities and their caregivers will be given the vaccine next.

The numbers of people included in these first two phases has not been estimated, but the second group will have to wait at least a month for the vaccine, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said Tuesday.

According to DPH’s vaccine dashboard, as of Dec. 24 Georgia has been allocated 332,500 doses and 26,010 people have been vaccinated.

ExploreWhat it’s like to get the COVID-19 shot

The Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services department isn’t wasting any time vaccinating its first responders, who can get the vaccine alongside healthcare workers in the first phase of the rollout. The agency signed up for and was allocated 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 500 of the Moderna vaccine, according to information posted online by the GDPH.

Cobb County Public Safety Director Randy Crider said the county began administering vaccines Tuesday to firefighters, all of whom are certified emergency medical technicians. Vaccines will also be available to healthcare workers who work in a clinic that serves county employees and their families.

Crider said the vaccine allows firefighters to take care of people who are showing symptoms of the virus without worrying if they will get seriously ill from COVID-19. He said 350 firefighters have volunteered to get the shots. That’s about 50% of those eligible for the vaccine, he said, which might reflect the general attitude among those in society hesitant to take a drug developed so quickly.

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“I think eventually most, if not all of them, will come around and agree to take the vaccine,” said Crider, who said the department’s workers will continue wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

Crider said those getting the shot are monitored for adverse allergic reactions. So far, no one receiving the vaccine with Cobb fire has reacted badly, he said.

This is a chart of the four phases of vaccine availability in Georgia.
This is a chart of the four phases of vaccine availability in Georgia.

Credit: Dr. Vik Kapil

Credit: Dr. Vik Kapil

While many are eager to get vaccinated, most agencies are stopping short of requiring their employees to get the shot. Crider said Cobb fire will leave that choice up to firefighters.

Charlotte Baez-Diaz, communications manager for the Georgia Nurses Association said the organization doesn’t have a position on whether the vaccines should be optional or required.

“I believe a majority of nurses are on board with receiving the vaccine,” Baez-Diaz said in a text to the AJC.

Labat, the Fulton sheriff-elect, said early vaccinations will be optional for the more than 900 employees at his office as well as detainees at the jail, but he’s looking into whether his office has the legal authority to require the vaccine. His office will conduct a survey of employees to get a sense of whether they want to take the vaccine or not, he said.

Dr. Grant Rivera, superintendent of Marietta City Schools, said districts can’t legally require educators to get the vaccine.

“Philosophically as a superintendent, I don’t believe it is my place to require educators to do it,” he said. “To me, that’s a personal decision.”

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said while it believes its members should get the vaccine, the organization realizes there are communities that “historically have had inequity in healthcare and are concerned about taking the vaccine.”

Many educators who are teaching students in classrooms are eager to get the vaccine. While they may be among the first to get vaccinated, their students will be among the last. Morgan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a phone interview that about 11,000 school-aged children in the state tested positive for COVID-19 in December, the highest since July when it hovered around 10,000.

The vaccine won’t be a “magic bullet,” Morgan said, and school systems will have to continue requiring masks in the building and maintaining social distancing between students and staff.

“We’re going to need those mitigation factors to remain in place,” she said.

March 17, 2020 - Smyrna - Farshad Guirakhoo, Chief Scientific Officer at Smyrna-based GeoVax, checks on one of the vaccine candidates for COVID-19 that his lab is working on.  At least a half-dozen efforts are underway in Georgia to research, develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.    Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
March 17, 2020 - Smyrna - Farshad Guirakhoo, Chief Scientific Officer at Smyrna-based GeoVax, checks on one of the vaccine candidates for COVID-19 that his lab is working on. At least a half-dozen efforts are underway in Georgia to research, develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

The public seems in agreement that police officers, teachers and others in group 1B should be early recipients of the vaccine. In surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 60% to 87% of respondents supported prioritization of early COVID-19 vaccines to essential non-healthcare workers. In a CDC-sponsored vaccine intent survey from September, 60% of such workers reported they would likely get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Cobb County teacher Priscella Key said she will get the vaccine when it’s offered to her. Key, who teaches at Clay-Harmony Leland Elementary in Mableton, and her husband, Patrick, a teacher at Hendricks Elementary School, contracted COVID-19 last month. Fellow Cobb teachers Jacob Furse and Dana Johnson have also been diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID-19.

While Priscella Key has recovered, her husband is in ICU at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital where he has been since Nov. 15. His condition is slowly improving and he’s been able to engage with physical therapy and come off the life-supporting machine that does the work of his heart and lungs, according to a GoFundMe campaign created to help the Keys financially.

Priscella Key said she hopes other educators elect to get vaccinated, especially those who don’t have a choice between teaching remotely or in-person.

“Students are bringing the virus to the schools and other students and adults in the schools are being exposed,” she said. “I do hope that it is available to educators very soon.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters Helena Oliviero and Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.

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