Anger, frustration growing over Georgia vaccination efforts

Anna Williams, a staff member at  Woodland Ridge Assisted Living getting morale support from Bear Mahon, the chief operating officer, as she gets her COVID-19 vaccine. She and 90 other residents and care providers opted for vaccines on Saturday.

Anna Williams, a staff member at Woodland Ridge Assisted Living getting morale support from Bear Mahon, the chief operating officer, as she gets her COVID-19 vaccine. She and 90 other residents and care providers opted for vaccines on Saturday.

Lynn Floyd, a kidney transplant recipient, died from complications related to COVID-19 after her husband, an emergency room nurse, brought it home.

Now their daughter, Ashley Ward, is working day and night to try to vaccinate healthcare workers and nursing home residents. But the Blakely nurse is fighting a battle some say she is unlikely to win. Many of her peers and the families of nursing home residents have waived their access to the vaccine. In Miller County, where Ward works, roughly half have refused.

“I understand that a lot of people are not real comfortable,’' Ward said. “But you’ve got to look at the benefits.”

Elsewhere in Georgia, there are people who want to be vaccinated and can’t find out when and how they’ll get the shots. Meanwhile, some health care providers say they received hundreds more doses than they requested. Those issues are fueling anger and frustration about the state’s vaccination program, as Georgia continues to lag behind most states in the vaccination rate and as the toll from COVID-19 mounts. On Monday, Georgia for the first time surpassed 5,000 people currently hospitalized with the virus.

The first doses of vaccines in Georgia were earmarked for health care workers and for residents and staff of nursing homes. But on Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said that the program would be opened to those over age 65, as well as to police officers and firefighters, in parts of the state — they didn’t specify which — where there were surplus supplies.

That triggered more confusion and a scramble to get vaccine appointments.

Shortly after Kemp made his announcement, the health department serving Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties updated its website to offer vaccinations to the additional groups. By Saturday, the appointments were fully booked, said department spokesman Chad Wasdin.

The same day as the announcement, Hiawassee resident C. Williams spent hours on the phone trying to find a place to get a shot. The 76-year-old has a heart condition and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, so she’s spent most of the last 10 months holed up alone in her home.

She said her doctor’s office told her it didn’t have any doses and to call the local health department. She only got a busy signal there, she said, so she called nearby Chatuge Regional Hospital, which was shown on a state website as having 300 doses. But the person she spoke to seemed unaware that the hospital had any vaccine, said Williams, who didn’t want her full name used for fear of backlash.

“As far as I know, they’re not giving the shots up here,” she said. “It’s just very frustrating that no one seems to know anything.”

In Riverdale, Larry Richardson, chief operations officer of AmeriPro EMS, was concerned last week that he still didn’t have vaccines for his team of medics and no answers after repeated calls to the Department of Public Health and other health officials.

Meanwhile, CEO Pete Quinones of Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service said he worries that too many of the doses the company received will go to waste if the state doesn’t open up availability to more people.

At least a third of his employees have refused the shots, Quinones said. So he has vaccinated workers at two environmental companies that clean hospitals, and still has doses to spare.

Woodland Ridge Assisted Living managers and staff celebrate getting COVID-19 vaccines on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Woodland Ridge)

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Nursing homes waiting

Even though Georgia nursing homes are in the highest priority group for the vaccine, they also are struggling with issues of access and acceptance.

Some last week still weren’t on the schedule to receive doses, and administrators were frustrated over not being able to get through to CVS and Walgreens, which have contracts with the federal government to administer the vaccines.

Beth Cayce, who manages Woodland Ridge Assisted Living in Cobb County and also operates a home care company, said after not getting a date from CVS, she found a local pharmacy that vaccinated 91 residents and workers on Saturday.

“It was so exciting, it was like a celebration,” Cayce said.

But in Gainesville, Carol Thompson was trying to find out how she could get her 86-year-old mother vaccinated. Her mother, a retired nurse, lives in an assisted living facility which has not received doses, while nearby is a nursing home Kemp visited last week as it began vaccinations.

“Nobody planned for this,” Thompson said of the distribution plans. “I have a feeling there’s going to be an outbreak before we get our opportunity to get this vaccine.”

A limited supply of both the vaccine and the staff to administer it is dragging out the process, said Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the Georgia Health Care Association. He said it will probably take most of January for the pharmacies to make it to every senior care center.

Long-term care operators are also facing the challenge of convincing their workers to get immunized. Worries about side effects are widespread among front-line workers.

At the A.G. Rhodes home in Cobb County, 84 percent of residents received the vaccine, but only 20 percent of the staff did. At its Wesley Woods location, about 35 percent of the staff opted for the vaccine during its clinic day last week.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference last week after the first coronavirus vaccinations were administered to nursing home personnel.

Credit: J. Scott Trubey

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Credit: J. Scott Trubey

Uncertainty slows process

Adding to the confusion in Georgia is that the state has so many vaccination sites with so many different protocols and regimens, said Jimmy Lewis, chief executive officer of HomeTown Health, an advocacy group for rural hospitals in Georgia.

As it stands, he said, hospitals and healthcare agencies are hesitant to schedule inoculations because of uncertainties about the process. What if they receive 300 doses and 500 people show up? Do they turn them away? What if too many doses arrive and not enough people?

“If you’re going to vaccinate people, there has to be some predictability with what they have to do to get vaccinated,’' Lewis said.

Updated numbers show that 94,607 Georgia residents now have been vaccinated.

Georgia public health officials said Monday they are working on details on how to get vaccines to more people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website Monday showed that Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. State health officials, though, attributed the low rate to a delay by some officials in reporting data.

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, a registered nurse and chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services committee, said she’ll be looking into Georgia’s rate of inoculations this week to find out what’s getting in the way.

“I am hearing that health care workers in all areas are not stepping up to take the vaccine in numbers that we had anticipated,” she said, “and that could be one of the reasons that our immunization numbers are down. And that’s happening in all areas of our state.”

State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, a former orthopedic hand surgeon and a member of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said Georgia has so far received less than half of the supply of vaccine doses it requested, so rollout problems are to be expected.

“It’s just going to take a little time to get there, and meanwhile we’re dealing with this big spike, which is almost certainly partially related to the holidays,” said Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta. “I think anything like this that is sort of a mass response, it has to be tweaked as you go. Because you can’t anticipate everything on the front end.”

Staff writers Eric Stirgus and Scott Trubey contributed to this report.