Georgia planning coronavirus vaccine expansion for older adults

In perhaps as soon as two weeks from now, Georgia is planning to add people 65 and older, police officers and other first responders to the current cohort of persons eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced late Wednesday.

In a news release, Kemp said seniors, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders would be added to the current Phase 1A group eligible for vaccination. This planned expansion could begin within two weeks, if the state can obtain enough doses.

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Few details about the plan were included in the governor’s news release. But Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, have scheduled a media briefing Thursday morning.

At present, Phase 1A includes health care workers and staff and residents of long-term care homes.

It’s unclear how persons 65 and older and first responders added to Phase 1A will be informed of their new eligibility or how these individuals will schedule shots. That information was not included in the governor’s news release. A public information campaign is expected.

Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam stressed access to the vaccine will be based on availability. Some parts of the state, such as the Valdosta area, along with some rural areas, are more likely to have additional doses of the vaccine compared to metro Atlanta, where hospitals don’t have nearly enough doses to vaccinate their health care workers. Additional doses are set to arrive every week in Georgia.

Nydam noted some parts of the state are sitting on doses of the vaccine in ultra-cold storage and they have vaccinated health care workers who want to be vaccinated, and it didn’t seem to make sense to hold the doses for several weeks when so many people, including those at particularly high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, could begin getting the vaccine.

Nydam also said the appointments will be required for getting the vaccine and the state will soon release more details about how to book an appointment and address other logistics for this expanded eligibility group.

Vaccine rollout has been slow nationally compared to projections earlier this year by the Trump administration.

Georgia public health officials stress that it will take months for the general public to be vaccinated, and officials fear another spike in cases following Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Residents should continue to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash hands to help stop the spread of the virus.

To date, the state has administered 61,870 vaccine doses. Pfizer has shipped 177,450 doses of its vaccine to Georgia, and Modera has shipped 197,900 doses, state data show.

People over 65 alone make up 1.5 million people in Georgia, meaning a substantial ramp up in supply would be required to vaccinate the entire senior population.

“Following the expert guidance of Dr. Toomey, the CDC, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Georgia will move to expand Phase 1a vaccination criteria within the next two weeks to include the elderly, law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders - provided the state continues to receive adequate vaccine supplies,” Kemp said in a news release. “We will continue to monitor the administration efforts of our public health workers and partners in the private sector, and the supply chain of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to ensure eligible Georgians are vaccinated without delay.”

Vaccinations of some first responders and health care workers started in Georgia earlier this month under the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed program, which partnered with the pharmaceutical industry to develop vaccines for COVID-19 in less than one year.

On Monday, Kemp and Toomey marked the start of inoculations among staff and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers.

“Different areas of the state are completing Phase 1a at different times based on the number of healthcare workers and (long-term care facility) residents and staff they have to vaccinate,” Toomey said in the release. “This expansion of 1A eligible vaccination criteria will allow vaccine to be administered as quickly as possible to our most at-risk populations in terms of exposure, transmission and severity. It also gives healthcare providers and public health staff time to plan and work with local communities across the state to ensure safe and efficient deployment of limited vaccine supplies.”