Georgians scramble for vaccine slots on day 1 of expanded eligibility

Brookhaven resident Jordan Ricketts, 21, receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a DeKalb Board of Health COVID-19 vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Brookhaven resident Jordan Ricketts, 21, receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot at a DeKalb Board of Health COVID-19 vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Gov. Kemp says metro Atlantans should consider driving to South Georgia, where demand is less

Georgia’s big push to quell COVID-19 began Monday with overwhelming demand, prompting celebrations among those able to get vaccines into their arms and frustrations for those who couldn’t.

Appointments were quickly booked at vaccination sites in Fulton County, DeKalb County, Macon and Habersham County. Fulton’s vaccine hotline saw a surge in callers trying to get a place in line. Others navigated though the multiple state and pharmacy sign-up websites available to Georgians, only to be likely informed that all slots were gone and they’d be contacted at a later date.

Meanwhile rural areas of Georgia saw the opposite situation, with the state having shipped more doses than there are people willing or able to take them. Some savvy metro Atlanta vaccine seekers have been taking advantage of the low demand by booking appointments in distant zip codes, and Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday urged Atlanta-area residents to do just that to prevent vaccines going to waste.

The governor’s office said the state is considering shifting vaccine allocations to areas with higher demand.

“The metro-Atlanta mass vaccination sites are completely booked this week,” a Kemp spokeswoman said in a written statement. “Outside of the Atlanta area, the Habersham and Lakepoint (which opens next week) sites are booked as well. Governor Kemp urges eligible Georgians in the metro Atlanta area who are unable to get an appointment to consider driving to a south Georgia site where appointments are more available.”

Patients enter a vaccination tent at a DeKalb County Board of Health COVID-19 vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station in Doraville on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Patients enter a vaccination tent at a DeKalb County Board of Health COVID-19 vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station in Doraville on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Eva Lee, a vaccine distribution expert and director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare, questioned how metro Atlanta’s working poor are supposed to take time off work and make a six- to eight-hour round trip drive. Ideally, she said, people should have to drive no more than 10 to 20 miles to reach a vaccine site.

“It’s a burden for working people,” said Lee. “How do you think these people will ever get vaccinated?”

Shots are a breeze

The good news on Monday, though, was that those who managed to book appointments found operations running smoothly at vaccination sites.

DeKalb County health officials operating a vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA station scheduled 420 appointments Monday, most for the second shot. People waited in their vehicles before being called inside two giant white tents to get the vaccine.

Atlanta resident Bethany Baer, 34, a caregiver for an older parent, said she waited about three hours for her first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This time, the process went faster. She and others said they waited about 90 minutes.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It gives me hope.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health couldn’t provide first-day statistics yet on appointments booked or doses administered statewide.

With Georgia still smarting from a recent last-place ranking in CDC data for its pace of vaccinations, Kemp announced last week that those 55 and older and those with a long list of health issues would be eligible starting Monday. Now those who have asthma, compromised immune systems, lung disease, cancer, diabetes and sickle cell disease, or even those who are just overweight, can get in line.

Marietta resident Neil Rossman, 23, receives his first COVID-19 vaccine shot at a DeKalb County Board of Health vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Marietta resident Neil Rossman, 23, receives his first COVID-19 vaccine shot at a DeKalb County Board of Health vaccination site at the Doraville MARTA transit station on Monday. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

lt’s the state’s biggest effort yet to rapidly vaccinate masses of adults.

Liz Young, a Fulton County resident with severe asthma, was relieved to learn she was among the newly eligible. Last week, she tried to register for the vaccine through the DPH website. It attempts to guide people to appointments for vaccination sites run by local health departments. But Young got an email back saying she wouldn’t be scheduled yet because she was in “Phase 2.”

In fact, there is no Phase 2.

First thing Monday, Young called a DPH phone number to sort it out, but the worker who answered told her she was not yet eligible. When Young corrected her, the worker was apologetic and said she’d get a supervisor on the line. After waiting on hold for 10 minutes, Young gave up and hung up.

DPH officials say they have since fixed those computer emails.

Young has been plowing through the scattered resources on the DPH website, trying to find private pharmacies, but clicking on the locations one by one only to learn each was out of appointments.

“I have had pneumonia in the past. I am more susceptible to different types of pneumonia,” she said. ”It’s a health issue because I literally could die if I get COVID.”

Registration confusion

The DPH website is one of two operated by the state through which people can try to register for vaccine. The other is run by the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. They’re not linked.

If there are open appointments in one system, a person who’s wait-listed on the other system won’t know it.

Hana Schank, director of public interest technology for New America, a public policy think tank, said having two state sites plus multiple private providers is likely frustrating people. She pointed to more efficient operations in places such as Virginia, which has a one-stop, centralized sign-up website.

“That is what should have been stood up initially,” Schank said. “That’s the only thing that makes sense. That’s how people expect things to work.”

State officials have touted the GEMA website as the simpler go-to resource to get large numbers of people vaccinated at sites the agency runs. But Devin Porter, a metro Atlanta electrical engineer who became eligible Monday due to his health, said he ran into “a brick wall” with it.

It presented him phone numbers to call for each of the mass vaccination sites, so he called — but the automated system wasn’t updated yet with the new eligibility categories. It asked him about last week’s categories, and then the system told him he wasn’t yet eligible.

“Please visit DPH.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine for more information concerning when other age groups will become eligible,” the recording told him. “Thank you and goodbye.”

State officials said they hoped the phone system would be fixed by day’s end.

If Porter had scrolled all the way down past the list of vaccination sites and phone numbers, state officials say he would have come to a place where he could enter his email address and phone number. Then, they say, he would receive an email within 24 to 48 hours enabling him to register for an appointment or get on a waiting list.

Operations at the mass vaccination site at Habersham County Fairgrounds in Clarkesville went smoothly Monday. With expanded eligibility, the daily number of vaccines administered was more than doubled to 2,100, the site manager said. (Helena Oliviero / Helena.Oliviero@ajc.com)
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Operations at the mass vaccination site at Habersham County Fairgrounds in Clarkesville went smoothly Monday. With expanded eligibility, the daily number of vaccines administered was more than doubled to 2,100, the site manager said. (Helena Oliviero / Helena.Oliviero@ajc.com)

Credit: Helena Oliviero / Helena.Oliviero@ajc.com

Credit: Helena Oliviero / Helena.Oliviero@ajc.com

While the state site at the Habersham County Fairgrounds in Clarkesville was booked, the operation seemed efficient.

A steady stream of cars made their way through various checkpoints for doses of the Pfizer vaccine, then waited for about 15 minutes in a parking area. Don Strength, the site manager, said most people were coming from metro Atlanta, adding that people from throughout the state are welcome.

He said the site on Monday was starting its fourth week and with expanded eligibility was increasing its daily number of vaccines administered to 2,100 per day, up from 1,000 per day in previous weeks. He said the site could likely increase the capacity to close to 3,000 doses per day.

Priscila Benson from Marietta gave the site high praise. Benson, mother to a child with complex medical conditions, preregistered about a week ago, and when she went to set up an appointment a few days ago she found no appointments in Marietta but availability here.

“So it took me about an hour and a half. I listened to a podcast and it was no big deal and once I got here everything was great, very professional, all buttoned up,” she said.