‘I can’t get through’: Georgia vaccine expansion in turmoil

New state website led to busy phone numbers, crashed websites

The state on Monday officially opened vaccine eligibility to a huge new slice of Georgians —those 65 and older — and launched a vaccination locator website, touted last week as a new and critical tool.

But the Georgia Department of Public Health website led to busy phone numbers, wrong numbers and crashed web forms. And the deluge of people caught in the maze did not know where to turn.

“At least update the recording or the website, let us know the number’s down, you’re working on it,” pleaded Jana McNerney of Dahlonega, who has lost friends to COVID-19 and tried five phone numbers for Lumpkin County’s health office in vain Monday. “Just you know, give us some hope!”

The state’s vaccination locator tool listed possible vaccination sites and their phone numbers, but didn’t say how many doses each site has. Clicking through to a site rarely links to an online registration tool.

It does link to an online registration form for Cobb and Douglas Public Health, but it crashed. County officials said it wasn’t ready to launch yet.

Appointment books were drowning in signups, anyway.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Before the end of the day, state district health departments that halted their signups for lack of available resources included DeKalb, Fulton, the Savannah Coastal District, the Northwest Georgia district and others.

“We know people are frustrated because the process is moving more slowly than they would like, and if we could vaccinate everyone today, we’d do that,” said Dr. Lawton Davis, health director for the Coastal District. “But your health departments are stretched thin and doing what they can to move forward.”

The South Central Health District in middle Georgia had planned a first-come, first-served vaccination event on Monday for seniors in Bleckley County. But officials changed course over the weekend and set up an appointment system after seeing news reports from other states of long lines of the elderly in cars waiting to get vaccine. Its phone lines were jammed Monday with people wanting appointments.

Some hospital systems made public announcements, essentially saying this: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Piedmont Healthcare, one of the state’s largest health systems, announced that it could not handle the call volume and had no available appointments. Piedmont is calling its own patients, and only they will get appointments, the health system said.

“Please do not call or visit Piedmont locations unless you have an appointment,” The statement said. “Calling or visiting without an appointment or many hours before your appointed time interferes with our ability to provide patient care at this critical time.”

Wellstar Health system announced it had filled all 10,000 vaccination slots it had available “due to significant demand.” As more vaccine doses are delivered, it will open new appointments, it said, but for its own patients.

“I can’t get through”

Georgia’s struggles in rolling out the vaccine coincide with a third wave of cases that has likely not yet reached its crest. The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed and suspected infections exceeds 9,800, the highest point in the pandemic.

On Monday, DPH reported 7,454 net new confirmed and probable cases and 17 confirmed deaths. More than 5,600 people are hospitalized in Georgia with COVID-19, a new record.

Credit: Screenshot of Cobb and Douglas counties' signup website for vaccinations, Monday, Jan. 11

Credit: Screenshot of Cobb and Douglas counties' signup website for vaccinations, Monday, Jan. 11

Two weeks ago, with cases ballooning, Gov. Brian Kemp announced that the group eligible for vaccination would expand beyond health care workers and nursing home residents and staff to include all those age 65 or older. There are 1.5 million such people in Georgia. But the entire state so far has received only 556,000 doses, not enough to vaccinate even the original group when vaccinations launched.

In his announcement broadening the eligible groups, Kemp said the the expanded vaccination expansion would begin provided an adequate vaccine supply was available. Vaccine providers said that prompted people to start calling and showing up across the state last week, and Kemp at a news conference Friday was clearer: “There is nowhere near the supply,” he said.

The result for Julia Simmons of Gwinnett County was another blow in the pandemic.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“I can’t get through to the health department phone numbers or the website,” she said. She is on immune-suppressing medication and wants a vaccine as soon as she can. She’s trying to figure out what kind of proof she needs to provide, and when, to show she’s in the eligible group. “I mean am I crazy—or do these seem like really basic questions that they’ve had a lot of time to prepare for?”

The State Department of Public Health is currently in discussions to create a centralized system for vaccination, and/or mass vaccination sites to provide additional access to vaccine, as vaccine supplies allow, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said.

A boon for some

There is a statewide shortage not just of vaccine doses but of staff to perform just about all tasks necessary to fight the pandemic. To carry out the vaccination campaign, public health officials have pivoted from a focus on testing, scaling back the days and locations where testing is offered.

For those who made it into a vaccine slot, the result is a wave of relief.

Lynn Wright expressed deep gratitude after receiving a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday afternoon at a DeKalb County Board of Health mass vaccination site set up in a sprawling parking lot in Doraville.

“I feel extremely thankful, and if this signals the end of isolation, I will praise God,” said Wright, who is 76 and lives in Dunwoody, as she waited 15 minutes in her car after the shot in her left arm to make sure she didn’t experience any immediate adverse effects after getting the shot.

Behind her, line of cars of at least 100 vehicles inched their way to an open-air white tent, and one by one, received the vaccine. They were lucky.

Board of Health spokesman Eric Nickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday that within two hours of opening the registration process for adults 65 and older, 7,000 people had registered. By Saturday morning, 13,000 people registered, and DeKalb County put a pause on accepting more registrations.