DOCUMENTS: City of Atlanta Fire Dept. family members jump vaccine line

Shown here, an Atlanta nurse-practitioner prepares Pfizer vaccines at a mass vaccination program at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this year.  According to documents, the city of Atlanta arranged for some people to get vaccinated at the Mercedes-Benz site who are not yet eligible under state rules.  (PHOTO by Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Shown here, an Atlanta nurse-practitioner prepares Pfizer vaccines at a mass vaccination program at Mercedes-Benz Stadium earlier this year. According to documents, the city of Atlanta arranged for some people to get vaccinated at the Mercedes-Benz site who are not yet eligible under state rules. (PHOTO by Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

In the most prominent example so far of vaccine line-jumping, Atlanta told its Fire Rescue Department members that it had arranged for their immediate family members to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

A memo issued by the fire department’s EMS Division deputy chief, Jimmy Gittens, said that the department, working with the mayor’s office, had “finalized the 2nd round (1B) of COVID-19 vaccinations for the members and immediate family members of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department” and that vaccinations would resume beginning Feb. 5.

As soon as they got the go-ahead, some fire department officials took family members to get the shots and urged others to do so, according to a fire department source who spoke on the condition of not being named.

Officials with the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms did not respond to questions from the AJC about whether the city had consulted with the state before making the decision and how many had received shots who were not eligible under state rules.

Instead, the city issued a brief statement calling the vaccination process for the city’s public safety officials smooth and successful. “To the best of our knowledge,” a city spokesperson wrote, “no qualifying public safety official who has requested a vaccine has been denied.

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“The memo in question was a miscommunication,” the spokesperson wrote, “and the city is looking into the facts surrounding the matter.” The city did not respond to questions Thursday about whether the memo had been rescinded and the family vaccinations stopped.

This memo says that the city of Atlanta arranged to get family members of fire department members vaccinated ahead of more vulnerable groups.  Currently, according to state Department of Public Health rules, only people in phase 1A+ are allowed to get vaccinated. Those eligible include those who are 65 or older.
This memo says that the city of Atlanta arranged to get family members of fire department members vaccinated ahead of more vulnerable groups. Currently, according to state Department of Public Health rules, only people in phase 1A+ are allowed to get vaccinated. Those eligible include those who are 65 or older.

Georgia is not yet vaccinating group 1B. Even if it were, Phase 1B doesn’t include family members of fire personnel according to rules set by the Department of Public Health and the governor. It is for essential infrastructure workers who do jobs critical to public health, economy, safety and national security.

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email that the state was not aware of the Atlanta decision and had not been involved in it. She added that “DPH has been and continues to be very clear with providers (of shots to people) that we are in Phase 1A+ for vaccination.”

She added in highlighted text, “unless they are in one of the above populations, spouses and family members are not eligible for vaccine administration at this time.”

To qualify for vaccine at this stage, a family member would have to be eligible on his or her own: either as a worker or resident at a long-term-care facility, as a first responder or front-line health worker, or being aged 65 or older. Those are the groups eligible now under what DPH calls the “1A+” phase. Vaccine is currently too scarce to do more.

The move comes on the heels of two other known incidents of line-jumping, one at an Elbert County clinic and one at Floyd Medical Center in Rome.

In Elbert County, a doctor decided to vaccinate local school district employees. In Floyd County, the hospital gave vaccine to family members of their employees. The Elbert County doctor has had his vaccine seized, and the Floyd County incident is under review by DPH. Nydam said Thursday that no decision has yet been issued on whether to sanction Floyd.

It is unclear which provider agreed to give the city’s new group the vaccine. The city itself is not a vaccine distributor, Nydam said.

About 2,000 clinics, hospitals, and other organizations have qualified so far to receive vaccine and administer it. County boards of health also give out vaccine. In general, the state receives an allotment of more than 100,000 doses each week, and it decides which of the providers get how many of those doses. The allotment is still a fraction of what is needed, and each week providers wait anxiously to find out how much of the state’s allotment they’re getting.

A common sight:  No appointments available to register to get vaccinated, as any slots that open swiftly fill up.  This screenshot shows what happened if someone tried to register for vaccination with the Fulton County Board of Health on the evening of Feb. 10.  There is not nearly enough vaccine to offer it to all Georgians yet.
A common sight: No appointments available to register to get vaccinated, as any slots that open swiftly fill up. This screenshot shows what happened if someone tried to register for vaccination with the Fulton County Board of Health on the evening of Feb. 10. There is not nearly enough vaccine to offer it to all Georgians yet.

The doses may come via a public health office. Or for bigger providers like big hospitals, the doses may be shipped directly from the vaccine manufacturer, at the state’s instructions.

When Floyd Medical Center workers went to get their family members vaccinated, they didn’t have to negotiate for vaccine; the hospital was a provider and had its own supply.

The fire department said its vaccinations would be provided at Mercedes-Benz stadium, a frequent location for vaccination by the Fulton County Board of Health. The board did not say whether it had provided the fire department the extra vaccinations, but a spokeswoman said it would “never knowingly administer the vaccine to anyone who is outside of Phase 1A.” The spokeswoman, Sheena Haynes, said the board had informed each of the cities’ emergency personnel what the rules were.

The city of Atlanta has asked to have more control over where doses go within its borders. Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms in mid-January was one of several big-city mayors to ask then President-elect Joe Biden to consider giving their cities direct allocations of vaccine, instead of through state-sanctioned providers.

“Nobody knows our communities better than we do,” Bottoms told reporters at the time. “We know that especially in urban centers with more dense populations that we’ve been hit pretty hard.... We’re not trying to bypass or take away from anything that the state is doing, but just to layer on to give us more control over what’s happening in our neighborhoods and communities with the vaccine distribution.”

When it comes to individual front-line worker organizations trying to get family members vaccinated, a number of officials interviewed by the AJC said that they sympathized, but it still comes with a cost. The EMS worker or health worker is eligible to be vaccinated on his or her own. Any vaccine given to a family member is vaccine that doesn’t go to someone even more vulnerable to severe disease or death, experts said.

“I absolutely have sympathy for them,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor of public health at Georgia State University. “If we had unlimited vaccine we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Channel 2 Action News reporter Richard Elliot contributed to this article.

AJC REPORTING: VACCINE ROLLOUT

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been looking into vaccine distribution in Georgia and whether vaccines are going first to those who need it most. The AJC is continuing to shed light on how equitable the distribution of vaccines is and on issues with planning and organization.

VACCINATION EXPANDS

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office announced Thursday that CVS will start taking appointments to vaccinate Georgians who qualify at 12 of the chain’s Georgia stores starting Friday. The doses will come from supplies CVS had left over after offering first and second doses to long-term care facilities in the state.

To get vaccinated at the CVS pharmacies, people must register online or by phone; no walk-ins will be accepted. By Thursday afternoon all vaccination appointments were fully booked in CVS’s Atlanta, Buford, Jonesboro, Marietta and Stone Mountain locations, but seven other cities had openings. Vaccine appointments are also available at Kroger, Publix, Ingles and Walmart pharmacies.

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