Vaccine arrives in Atlanta area

Metro Atlanta on Wednesday saw the area’s first vaccinations to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Doses were also on the way to area hospitals, with 16,575 doses expected to land Wednesday in the metro area. Yet as the vaccination effort began to pick up steam, the pandemic roared ahead, breaking state records for hospitalization. Sixteen Georgia hospitals were reporting their ICU’s full Wednesday evening, refusing to accept more ICU patients. Vaccines for the broader public will not be available for months. Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, . last week pleaded with Georgians to follow state guidance to wear masks, wash hands, limit gatherings and get a flu shot. Meanwhile, Emory University officials are urging people not to travel for the winter holidays. Gatherings ideally should be limited to within the household

Hospitals around the state see record numbers of patients with COVID-19

Metro Atlanta on Wednesday saw the area’s first vaccinations to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, as a pharmacist, a nurse, public health managers and a worker who greets coronavirus test patients all sat down for their shots before a bank of TV cameras in Gwinnett County.

Doses were also on the way to area hospitals, with 16,575 doses expected to land Wednesday in the metro area.

Yet as the vaccination effort began to pick up steam, the pandemic roared ahead, breaking state records for hospitalizations. The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) on Wednesday reported 3,221 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, a new single-day record. That surpasses Georgia’s peak of 3,200 in late July.

Sixteen Georgia hospitals were reporting their ICU’s so full Wednesday evening they were refusing to accept more ICU patients. Still more were turning away ambulances from their emergency rooms.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could not obtain detailed hospital data for Wednesday because of an outage in the state’s hospital web portal, which DPH said it was working to fix.

But one hospital system, University Hospital in Augusta, said it admitted 22 new COVID-19 patients overnight Tuesday to Wednesday, for a new peak of 110 hospitalized. The system’s previous record was 105, during the summer surge.

“This surge has required us to reopen two and possibly three negative air pressure cohort units in the Main Hospital,” the spokeswoman, Rebecca Sylvester, said in an email. “Still no new updates this morning on our timeline for receiving the vaccine.”

And Northeast Georgia Health System’s flagship hospital in Gainesville reported Wednesday treating 146 confirmed COVID-19 patients, up from 106 at the end of November. The hospital was down to only one available ICU bed, as was a sister hospital in Braselton.

On its website, the system said it still doesn’t have the vaccine and is not sure how many doses it will receive.

Of Wednesday’s vaccine shipment to metro Atlanta, some 14,000 doses were headed to about 10 hospitals, said DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam. She would not say which hospitals would get the vaccine.

The other 2,000 or so doses went to the public health district that serves Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties. Dr. Audrey Arona, the district’s director, said some of the doses would go to Northside Hospital’s hospitals in Lawrenceville and Duluth, as well as Piedmont’s Newton and Rockdale hospitals and Eastside Medical Center in Snellville.

IN DEPTH: Answers to your questions about the COVID-19 vaccine

Other doses went to health district staff, including the five district staffers vaccinated Wednesday. All work directly with patients.

Marty Carpenter was apparently metro Atlanta’s first official vaccine recipient. He works on another pandemic, managing a program to test people for HIV and educate them about medication. Because some people in that population may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, he has not been able to be face to face with them during the pandemic.

“It’s exciting, just being able to see that things are getting better,” Carpenter said. “We’re on the right track.”

Marty Carpenter, Jr., Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton County Health Department HIV Program Manager, is shown here receiving the COVID-19 Pfizer BioNTech vaccination, apparently the first one administered in metro Atlanta.  The department's director, Dr. Audrey Arona, gave him the shot.  The health department received 2,000 Pfizer vaccine doses for distribution in the three counties, part of about 16,000 doses received in metro Atlanta Wednesday. (PHOTO by Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Marty Carpenter, Jr., Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton County Health Department HIV Program Manager, is shown here receiving the COVID-19 Pfizer BioNTech vaccination, apparently the first one administered in metro Atlanta. The department's director, Dr. Audrey Arona, gave him the shot. The health department received 2,000 Pfizer vaccine doses for distribution in the three counties, part of about 16,000 doses received in metro Atlanta Wednesday. (PHOTO by Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Arona, who will be administering COVID-19 shots as part of the vaccination campaign, was also among those inoculated Wednesday.

Public health workers like Arona and her staff have now come face to face with the complexities of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires a series of particular temperatures for limited amounts of time as it is stored, then delivered, then mixed, then administered. As soon as the vials get out of cold storage and thaw, the vaccine concentrate must be mixed within two hours. After mixing, the clock starts ticking down again, and the vaccine must be given within hours, or spoil.

Sitting on the sidelines of the Wednesday vaccination event, Joseph Sternberg, the logistics chief for the three-county public health district, had helped meet that timeline. He handed over the vials for vaccination at room temperature, within the time window.

While the vaccine timing is tricky, health officials know they are racing death. To date, DPH has reported 9,302 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and another 926 deemed probable COVID-19 deaths.

Vaccines for the broader public will not be available for months. Without a significant change in behaviors by Georgians to wear masks and maintain distance, the signs ahead are not encouraging, health experts say.

“No doubt cases are increasing and there will be a point when hospitals, our ICUs and our clinics will be overwhelmed or just have to turn away folks,” said Dr. Henry Wu, the director of the Emory University TravelWell Center. “I think if the current trends continue that’s a real possibility not only in Georgia but in much of the country.”

Health authorities had predicted that cases, hospitalizations and deaths would surge if people ignored advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay home at Thanksgiving and to strictly limit gatherings.

Though Thanksgiving travel was down from years past, many families ignored the public health guidance, and the state’s trajectory of coronavirus cases soared following the holiday.

Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, last week pleaded with Georgians to follow state guidance to wear masks, wash hands, limit gatherings and get a flu shot. But Kemp has not implemented any new restrictions despite recommendations to do so by the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

While hopes are that the vaccines will eventually end the pandemic, the doses will be extremely limited for months to come.

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine, and the state’s first shipments landed on the Georgia coast Monday.

Georgia will receive 84,250 doses of that vaccine this month.

If the Moderna vaccine is authorized this week as expected, the state expects to receive 174,000 of those doses to start with. That will make for a total of just under 260,000 doses over the next couple of weeks in Georgia, a state of 10 million.

All those 260,000 people will need a second dose within three or four weeks, which the government has in reserve.

Meanwhile, Emory University officials are urging people not to travel for the winter holidays. Gatherings ideally should be limited to within the household, Wu said.

“Even better if you can meet virtually,” he said.

Shown here, Joseph Sternberg, a nurse and the logistics chief for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties' public health district, drew the COVID-19 Pfizer BioNTech vaccine from a vial into a syringe to be administered to a health department employee at the district office in Lawrenceville Wednesday.  That day this vial went from cold storage to room temperature over several hours in a strictly controlled series of preparation events. (PHOTO by Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Shown here, Joseph Sternberg, a nurse and the logistics chief for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale counties' public health district, drew the COVID-19 Pfizer BioNTech vaccine from a vial into a syringe to be administered to a health department employee at the district office in Lawrenceville Wednesday. That day this vial went from cold storage to room temperature over several hours in a strictly controlled series of preparation events. (PHOTO by Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

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