Georgia expands vaccination plans as some still await first doses

With Gov. Brian Kemp looking on, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia's public health commissioner, gives an update on distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

With Gov. Brian Kemp looking on, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia's public health commissioner, gives an update on distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Lagging behind virtually every other state in administering the COVID-19 vaccine, Georgia has expanded the list of people eligible for inoculation amid record numbers of newly confirmed and suspected coronavirus cases.

Under new protocols announced Thursday, Georgia will offer the vaccine to people age 65 or older, as well as police officers and firefighters, in parts of the state where most health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities have already received their initial shots. Officials still are working out details on where and how these vaccinations will be distributed.

But in other regions, including metro Atlanta, even many health-care workers and others at the highest risk of contracting the virus are still waiting, more than two weeks after the vaccine was first administered. The state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said the risk of damaging excess supplies is too high to move them in bulk from one location to another.

Instead, Toomey said, “it really made sense for us to move into this additional category to offer vaccines.”

The shift in vaccination priorities coincided with a surge in new coronavirus cases. On Thursday, the state Department of Public Health reported 11,709 new cases, along with 64 more confirmed deaths and 24 others that it listed as probably caused by the virus. Since mid-March, Georgia has recorded more than 666,000 coronavirus cases and almost 11,000 deaths, three times more than early worst-case scenarios projected.

Among the latest deaths was that of a 7-year-old girl from Clayton County. Authorities did not identify the girl or release the date of her death, but the public health agency said she had no pre-existing medical conditions. She is the eighth Georgia child to die from the coronavirus.

Despite the mounting cases, Georgia appears to be among the slowest of states to distribute the vaccine to its residents. The most recent data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows 480 of every 100,000 Georgians have received a vaccination shot — a lower ratio than any other state except Kansas, Mississippi and Ohio. Among Georgia’s neighbors, Tennessee is leading the way with a vaccination rate more than twice as high as Georgia’s.

As of Thursday, Georgia had received 376,325 vaccine doses, but health-care providers had administered just 76,742 doses, or about 20%, state data shows.

The slow rollout reflects an uneven national distribution plan. CDC data shows that only about 22% of the the 12.4 million doses distributed around the nation have been administered. So far, 2.8 million Americans — less than 1% of the population — have received the vaccine.

Federal officials blame bad weather that delayed some shipments, along with the Christmas holiday and the complexity of distributing a new vaccine with different types of storage requirements. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, for example, requires storage at about minus-70 degrees Celsius.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday that Georgia’s vaccination pace should pick up after it received an additional 120,000 doses this week.

“We will use every available resource to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible,” Kemp told reporters.

Toomey said the state plans to set up drive-thru and mass-vaccination clinics, particularly in the Atlanta area. She said state universities may help operate the vaccination sites.

To get the vaccine to Georgians 65 and older, the state may rely on primary care physicians and local health departments to set up online appointments. Georgia wants to avoid problems that have emerged in Florida, where hundreds of seniors have formed long lines outside vaccination sites, some even camping out overnight with lawn chairs and blankets.

Following federal guidance, Georgia offered the vaccine first to health-care workers and people who live and work in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, all of whom have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Police officers, firefighters and those 65 and older were to be among the second group on the state’s vaccination schedule.

That changed as some hospitals, especially outside metro Atlanta, reported more than adequate supplies of the vaccine. But behind that surplus lies the hesitation of some health-care workers to accept the vaccine.

Van Loskoski, vice president of physician services at Stephens County Hospital in Toccoa, said a recent survey found only about 60% of the facility’s health workers want to be vaccinated. Loskoski expects some to change their minds as they see others, including many doctors, get and respond well to the vaccine. Still, the hospital plans to begin inoculating police officers and other first responders in its community as early as next week.

“We deal with the treatment of patients in a hospital setting,” he said, “but we are not the only ones with potential of exposure. I am glad they are moving quickly to make sure there is access to those who really need it.”

But some newly eligible Georgians have jumped at the chance to get the vaccine.

Logan Boss, public information officer for the Georgia’s Northwest Health District, which includes Paulding, Bartow, Floyd and seven other counties, said doses of the vaccine are “extremely limited.” The agency hopes to begin offering the vaccine to people in the expanded eligibility group around mid-January — none too soon for many residents.

“We are getting slammed with phone calls from people,” Boss said.

Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state's COVID-19 vaccination efforts during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.