More contagious COVID-19 strain ‘probably widespread’ in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks after touring a Cobb and Douglass County Public Health Department COVID-19 vaccine drive thru site at Jim Miller Park in Marietta Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Gov. Brian Kemp makes remarks after touring a Cobb and Douglass County Public Health Department COVID-19 vaccine drive thru site at Jim Miller Park in Marietta Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Pressure grows to ramp up vaccinations but doses are still in short supply

With COVID-19 deaths in Georgia at their highest point in the pandemic and a worrisome variant “probably widespread” throughout the state, health authorities are in a desperate race against time to vaccinate as many people as possible.

But Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday the state is still short of doses and won’t be able to expand vaccine eligibility to include teachers and other essential workers for at least two to three weeks.

It could even be longer unless more COVID-19 vaccine doses become available.

Speaking at a news conference in Cobb County, Kemp announced that 1 million Georgians have now received a COVID-19 vaccine shot, which he called “an encouraging milestone.” And starting next week, Kemp said, the number of doses allocated to the state will increase from 120,000 doses a week to 154,000 doses, due to the Biden administration’s plan to release more supplies.

That won’t be enough to ramp up for mass vaccinations, however. While the state has been allocated about 1.5 million doses, Kemp noted there are some 2 million Georgians currently eligible to be vaccinated. That includes those 65 years and older, healthcare workers and public safety officers, as well as those who live and work in long-term care facilities.

“Our demand is drastically outpacing the supply that we’re seeing in our state,” Kemp told reporters at Jim Miller Park in Cobb County, where he had toured its vaccination site.

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Kennesaw State University Nursing Student Julia Taylor prepares a single does of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for a patient at a drive thru vaccination at Jim Miller Park in Marietta Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

 Kennesaw State University Nursing Student Julia Taylor prepares a single does of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for a patient at a drive thru vaccination at Jim Miller Park in Marietta Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Kennesaw State University Nursing Student Julia Taylor prepares a single does of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for a patient at a drive thru vaccination at Jim Miller Park in Marietta Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

ExploreThe latest news on the coronavirus vaccines

Despite that continuing shortage, Kemp pointed to signs of improvement. The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases has fallen about 46% since Jan. 11, down to 5,288 cases on Wednesday, according to an AJC analysis of state data. The number of people currently hospitalized is down about 30% from its peak on Jan. 12, to 4,021.

But the rolling average of deaths reported each day remained near the record high on Wednesday, at 112. Including deaths deemed probably, the rolling average is 136.

And the Department of Community Health on Tuesday added another 55 deaths to its tally of nursing home and assisted living facility residents lost to the infection, bringing the total to 4,046.

Another worrisome sign: Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, said Wednesday that the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom is likely spreading fast throughout Georgia. The state has now confirmed 23 cases of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, but Toomey said that a limited surveillance system fails to capture the variant’s true spread.

Seven of the cases detected so far in the state are in Fulton County, which Dr. Lynn Paxton, district health director of the Fulton County Board of Health, called a “wild underestimation of the actual prevalence of this variant in our population.”

And she said it’s just a matter of time before the more contagious strain becomes the dominant one.

“In every situation where you have a variant or mutant that is more transmissible than the original one (virus) then you can bet your bottom dollar eventually that going to become the predominant variant,” she said.

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Celebratory stickers are available to patients that receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive thru at Jim Miller Park in Marietta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Celebratory stickers are available to patients that receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive thru at Jim Miller Park in Marietta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Celebratory stickers are available to patients that receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive thru at Jim Miller Park in Marietta. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

That adds to the pressure to expand vaccination eligibility to more people. With schools returning to in-person learning, teachers are demanding priority, as are mass transit employees and other essential workers. Yet throngs of people already eligible to get the vaccine, particularly older adults, have not been able to get inoculated because of limited vaccine supplies.

Expanding vaccine eligibility within a month to 1B, a group that would include teachers and other essential workers, could be overly optimistic. If Georgia continues to receive 154,000 doses per week and administers them at that pace, it could require several more weeks, at least, to meet the demands of Phase 1A.

Several factors at play could change the outlook. Johnson & Johnson, the only major drug maker developing a single-dose vaccine for COVID-19, is expected sometime this week to seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. If FDA signs off, the company said it would be prepared to ship doses immediately.

That would provide a much-needed supply source.

Supplies could also become available sooner because some of those eligible for vaccination are in no hurry to get the shots, and others are deeply hesitant about it. Even so, states don’t necessarily have to wait until one phase of the vaccination campaign is complete before expanding to the next phase.

Even as vaccines promise an end to the pandemic, public health officials are emphasizing that new strains of the disease are a powerful reminder of the need to stay vigilant. They continue to implore people to embrace a stick-to-the-basics strategy: Wear a mask (maybe even two.) Avoid crowds. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands. And get vaccinated — as soon as you can.

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.