Questions arise in vaccine distribution as Georgia tops 500,000 COVID-19 cases

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Tanner Health System, with 3,500 employees, is bursting with COVID-19 patients. For weeks it has been operating at full capacity, with some 55 patients needing admission Friday afternoon but waiting for beds. But the not-for-profit system so far has received no doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine to protect its staff. Nearby in Coweta County, the opposite situation prevails. In the same health district as Tanner, Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s hospital in Newnan said it had received every dose it needed to vaccinate all its employees. The for-profit cancer hospital listed just over 1,000 staff, including 148 administrators and support staff, in its latest filing with the state a year ago. Officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health have pointed to the federal government as the reason for uncertainties about when supplies will arrive and how many doses will be available. Whatever the issue, when it comes to deciding which health care facilities get that protection first, the formula doesn’t appear to be based on the greatest need

Some hard-hit hospitals still waiting for doses

Tanner Health System, with 3,500 employees, is bursting with COVID-19 patients. For weeks it has been operating at full capacity, with some 55 patients needing admission Friday afternoon but waiting for beds. It has 61 COVID-19 patients being treated in units at its Carrollton, Villa Rica and Bremen hospitals.

But the not-for-profit system so far has received no doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine to protect its staff. Maybe next week a shipment would come, Tanner Chief Operating Officer Greg Schulenburg said his contacts with the Georgia Department of Public Health have told the hospitals.

Or it could be as late as the following week. They’re not sure.

Why not sooner? “That’s a good question,” Schulenburg said.

Nearby in Coweta County, the opposite situation prevails. In the same health district as Tanner, Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s hospital in Newnan said it had received every dose it needed to vaccinate all its employees. The for-profit cancer hospital listed just over 1,000 staff, including 148 administrators and support staff, in its latest filing with the state a year ago.

Those kinds of disparities multiplied throughout Georgia this week as the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were distributed and as the coronavirus pandemic climbed to a somber milestone: Authorities recorded the state’s 500,000th case. And even as public health leaders raced to plan the second week’s orders of vaccines, amid hopes that a second vaccine candidate, by Moderna, would soon be available, concern spread about how doses are being distributed.

The issue for Tanner is not lack of preparation, Schulenburg said. The system has enough cold storage freezers required for the Pfizer vaccine to hold doses for all its employees, and they’re hoping to eventually ramp up enough to start treating health care personnel throughout West Georgia and East Alabama.

“We’re ready to go, we’re anxious to get started, and we’ve planned for it,” Schulenburg said. “So we’re just eyes forward and taking care of our patients here.”

Tanner Health System overflow nurse manager Paula Liles organizes a list of patients as she prepares to move patients to different rooms in the emergency department at the Carrollton hospital. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Tanner Health System overflow nurse manager Paula Liles organizes a list of patients as she prepares to move patients to different rooms in the emergency department at the Carrollton hospital. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

A spokeswoman for the health district said doses have gone only to the Spalding County Health Department in Griffin, and she didn’t know how many doses went there nor why Tanner Health has been left out.

A spokesman for the cancer hospital said it placed its order for the vaccine through the state and received doses directly from Pfizer.

Elsewhere in the state, hospitals in moderately hit areas reported getting just enough doses to vaccinate a first wave of frontline workers, while some hospitals in hotspots reported none.

Those hospitals that got doses often struggled to find out exactly when the vaccine would arrive.

“Looking at our state numbers and national numbers, it really speaks to our utter failure to appropriately execute a public health response to the pandemic,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health.

Other health care researchers said to be patient.

“There’s a huge difference between making a plan and implementing the plan,” said Mark Rosenberg, a former CDC researcher and former head of the Task Force for Global Health.

“Let’s cut them some slack. This is the first time anything like this has ever been done.”

While some hospitals teeming with coronavirus patients are still waiting for vaccine doses, Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s hospital in Newnan said it had received every dose it needed to vaccinate all its employees. (Photo by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com)
Caption
While some hospitals teeming with coronavirus patients are still waiting for vaccine doses, Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s hospital in Newnan said it had received every dose it needed to vaccinate all its employees. (Photo by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com)

Credit: Ariel Hart / Ariel.Hart@ajc.com

Credit: Ariel Hart / Ariel.Hart@ajc.com

‘It’s intolerable’

Health officials have chalked up the differences to happenstance, or transportation efficiencies. Pfizer said that it shipped all 2.9 million doses to the locations the federal government specified. Officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health have pointed to the federal government as the reason for uncertainties about when supplies will arrive and how many doses will be available.

A spokeswoman for the DPH said that it was still waiting on 10,000 doses from the first allocation of Pfizer vaccine. “The first allocation of Pfizer vaccine was sent, primarily, to larger hospitals with ultracold storage,” said the spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, “and even then, there was not enough vaccine to meet the needs of all hospitals.”

Whatever the issue, when it comes to deciding which health care facilities get that protection first, the formula doesn’t appear to be based on the greatest need.

READ: Answers to your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines

University Health Care System in Augusta, which saw record numbers of coronavirus hospitalizations last week, hadn’t received any vaccine on Friday, even as it treated 111 patients with COVID-19. The system has 600 frontline physicians and staff considered to be in “tier 1” to receive the first vaccine doses, Spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester said.

Several major hospital systems received deliveries to vaccinate limited numbers of their first responders.

Wellstar Health System, for example, with 11 hospitals and a workforce of 24,000, said that it had received 3,900 doses so far. WellStar needs them: As of Thursday morning, its hospitals had 405 COVID positive patients in beds as well as another 96 suspected COVID-19 patients awaiting test results. That’s a jump of 69 in one week. One-third of Wellstar’s ICU beds were given over to COVID-19.

Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Health System, whose main hospital has been under siege for weeks amid the holiday surge of COVID-19 cases, received a shipment of 5,000 doses Thursday. That is enough to cover the first round of shots for roughly half of the health system’s workforce, and vaccinations started that night.

“It feels like Christmas came early,” Carol Burrell, the president and CEO, said in a written statement.

But being large didn’t guarantee a delivery. Navicent Health, with a workforce of 6,500 and a flagship hospital in Macon, has received none and didn’t expect any by this weekend.

For Gary Hedrick of Athens, whoever is at fault for the delays and confusion in the deliveries to Georgia needs to fix the problem, now. Hedrick’s son is an emergency room nurse at a metropolitan hospital in Georgia, he said, who has not been vaccinated and has no idea when he will be.

“But he will stand by the bedside of several people today and provide care, vaccination or not,” Hedrick said. “He hasn’t missed a single shift since before we heard the word COVID-19. He just goes to work. And then to find out at this late juncture we don’t have a plan — how can these people go and work and do what they do, and somewhere, whoever’s responsible, doesn’t have a plan they can just roll out? It’s intolerable.”

A Northeast Georgia Health System employee prepares a freezer to store Pfizer vaccine doses. (Courtesy of Northeast Georgia Health System)
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A Northeast Georgia Health System employee prepares a freezer to store Pfizer vaccine doses. (Courtesy of Northeast Georgia Health System)

Credit: Courtesy of Northeast Georgia Health Sysem

Credit: Courtesy of Northeast Georgia Health Sysem

One in 20 Georgians sickened — or more

The pandemic continued to grow in Georgia, as the state neared a point where 5% of its entire population had been diagnosed with the disease.

As Georgia soared past 500,000 confirmed cases Friday, the state also set a net new daily high of confirmed and probable cases with 8,141. Of those, a net gain of 6,092 were confirmed cases and 2,049 were indicated by rapid antigen tests.

The number of people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Georgia — 3,280, according to state data at 3 p.m. — is two-and-half times greater than it was in mid-October.

To date, the state has reported 500,265 confirmed cases and 76,272 antigen positive cases have been reported statewide. The figure is likely an undercount. Testing was limited during the early days of the pandemic and the state’s testing network is likely capturing only a fraction of total cases.

There have been 9,396 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and another 936 deemed “probable” coronavirus deaths, state data show.

“It’s disappointing and frustrating because we could have done so much more to prevent this,” said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher and former Mercer University professor who tracks Georgia’s epidemic on her widely read blog.

America’s health care know-how is orders of magnitude greater than what it was during the flu pandemic of a century ago, she said, “but we’re somehow letting a virus burn through our population in the same way it did in 1918.”

Even though the Food and Drug Administration late Friday authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use, it will be months before enough doses of the two vaccines will be available to inoculate the general public. At vaccination press events this week frontline nurses and doctors who’d just received their shots joined public health officials in pleading for people to keep their distance, wear masks, wash hands and follow other health guidance.

AJC staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.