Rome hospital execs allowed employees’ families to jump vaccine line

Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Ga., was one of the earliest hit with a surge of COVID-19 cases and had to build extra space to treat patients.
Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Ga., was one of the earliest hit with a surge of COVID-19 cases and had to build extra space to treat patients.

Hundreds of vaccine doses that should have gone to vulnerable people on COVID-19 priority lists instead went to family members of employees at Floyd Medical Center in northwest Georgia, and hospital advocates say a public health worker OK’d the move.

The state Department of Public Health is reviewing the situation and also looking into whether another Floyd County hospital may have done the same. Elbert County leaders, meanwhile, are questioning why a hospital was able to choose its vaccine recipients while a popular Elberton doctor had his vaccine supply seized for inoculating teachers.

The state is not yet halfway through vaccinating the first priority groups: front-line health workers, first responders, long-term care staff and residents, people at least 65 years old, and caregivers to the elderly. It will need four million vaccine doses to complete those groups, and it has administered just over 1 million. Anyone else is not yet eligible.

ExploreKemp says Atlanta’s teachers must wait for COVID vaccines

Floyd Medical Center acknowledged in comments to a TV station that it had opened vaccination to employees’ family members whether or not they were eligible under the state’s list of priority groups.

The hospital’s CEO, Kurt Stuenkel, told station WAGA that he thought it was permissible if the hospital had excess vaccine. Stuenkel told them his wife was among 766 family members who were vaccinated.

Bill Fortenberry, manager of corporate communications for Floyd Medical Center, declined to answer questions on the issue. Stuenkel did not respond to a text message.

Early in the pandemic, Floyd Medical Center in northwest Georgia was deluged with COVID-19 patients after the area suffered one of the state's first outbreaks.  The state helped fund extra resources for the hospital.  Here, Governor Brian Kemp speaks after he toured a temporary medical pod and a pop-up hospital in the parking garage at Floyd Medical Center on May 13, 2020. (PHOTO by Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Early in the pandemic, Floyd Medical Center in northwest Georgia was deluged with COVID-19 patients after the area suffered one of the state's first outbreaks. The state helped fund extra resources for the hospital. Here, Governor Brian Kemp speaks after he toured a temporary medical pod and a pop-up hospital in the parking garage at Floyd Medical Center on May 13, 2020. (PHOTO by Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

A vice president with the Georgia Hospital Association, Ethan James, defended Floyd Medical Center. James said that Dr. Gary E. Voccio, health director of the public health district that includes Floyd County, “independently from the state advised (the hospital) that such a practice was allowable and appropriate.”

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health did not confirm or deny that. She said, however, that DPH had learned about the allegations on Wednesday and was reviewing them.

Voccio declined to comment.

ExploreMany Georgia health workers refuse to get COVID vaccine

Voccio’s determination has been in the news before. In March, when tests for coronavirus were scarce and rationed, Floyd Medical Center had a patient whom doctors and Voccio suspected had the virus but who couldn’t get tested. Voccio bucked government officials to insist the patient be tested, and she was, resulting in the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the county.

Dr. Harry Heiman, a Georgia State University professor who served on the state’s health equity task force, said he sympathizes with the hospital officials but the downside is grave.

“Given the current finite supply of vaccine,” Heiman said, “every vaccine dose we give to someone who isn’t appropriately prioritized to get it means there’s one less vaccine for someone who is.”

Around the time the Rome hospital was vaccinating employees’ family members, Ann Tankersley, also in Rome, was trying in vain for more than a week to get vaccinations for her and her husband.

Tankersley, who is 70, saw an ad in a local paper that she should register online to get vaccinated at the Floyd County public health offices. She did, only to learn much later that it was meaningless.

Public health workers she reached after repeated phone calls told her they were so overwhelmed with people calling and showing up for vaccine that they would never have time to look at the online registrants. The couple eventually went to Cobb County to get vaccinated.

The hospital, she said, should have returned excess doses to the health department, so they could help other vulnerable people. She thinks of her 98-year-old mother in an assisted living facility, who was unable to get vaccinated at the time hospital worker family members Tankersley knew were getting vaccinated. Tankersley’s mother has since been vaccinated.

Tankersley also said she knows of hospital employees who got family members vaccinated who did not live with them. “I hate to say it, because some of them are good friends of mine,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s right.”

State officials are also looking into whether Rome’s other hospital, Redmond Regional Medical Center, which is owned by the for-profit company HCA, also vaccinated family members of employees.

A spokeswoman for Redmond Regional Medical Center, Andrea Pitts, said the hospital asked DPH if it could go outside the tier system but was told no, so it didn’t. Redmond did offer vaccine to employees’ family members who are 65 and older, because they are eligible by dint of their age.

Floyd County was one of the first areas of Georgia to see a surge of infections. More than 8% of the population has been infected, with 7,970 confirmed cases, and the county has seen at least 129 deaths.

In this photo from April, early in the pandemic, health workers walk toward the entrance of Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia.  The hospital in northwest Georgia saw one of the state's first COVID-19 surges. (PHOTO by ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)
In this photo from April, early in the pandemic, health workers walk toward the entrance of Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia. The hospital in northwest Georgia saw one of the state's first COVID-19 surges. (PHOTO by ALYSSA POINTER / Alyssa.Pointer@AJC.com)

The events in Rome come as others are clamoring for the state to open up eligibility. As schools have reopened to in-person classes, teachers have pressed to be moved up in line, and on Monday, the Atlanta Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to begin vaccinating teachers.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday denied the request, saying the state doesn’t have enough supply and that science and public health data support that schools are safe to reopen.

In Elbert County, a clinic took matters into its own hands. The Medical Center of Elberton opened up vaccination to the local school system, which then vaccinated 177 of its workers. That doctor was suspended from state vaccine access for six months, and the state seized his vaccine supply.

Although vaccine is available to the county’s residents from other sources, local advocates were stung.

Daniel Graves, president of the Elberton Federal Savings & Loan, said the state should reverse its decision about the Elbert doctor. Doctors and local health authorities, he said, are in a better position to decide who should get vaccine.

“Sure I wonder why we were treated different,” said Graves, who is also chairman of the hospital authority for Elbert County. “I could focus on why we were treated differently, but I’d rather focus on why they got the decision right on Floyd County, and let’s get the decision right with Elbert County.”

AJC reporter Vanessa McCray contributed to this story.

In Other News