State will be tested as vaccinations open for majority of Georgians Monday

Scheduling frustrations already starting as state makes big push to end the pandemic here
Larry Goch receives instructions before getting his vaccination shot at the Jackson Memorial Baptist Church, where shots were offered through a partnership with Walgreens. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Larry Goch receives instructions before getting his vaccination shot at the Jackson Memorial Baptist Church, where shots were offered through a partnership with Walgreens. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The state is going big with vaccinations Monday, opening up eligibility to more than half of Georgia adults. It may be the most significant step yet to end the COVID-19 pandemic here.

The people are ready. The state isn’t always making it easy.

In recent days new vaccination appointment banks opened and filled within minutes or hours. Social media groups flooded with deep relief, anxious questions and pleas for help navigating the registration maze.

The state and federal government announced new resources to be deployed. But the state’s technology, often Georgia’s Achilles’ heel in the pandemic response, already is off to a slow start.

And the state also will have to smooth out distribution problems. In metro Atlanta, vaccines can be extremely hard to come by. In some other parts of the state, where people may not be as wary of the pandemic or are skeptical of the vaccine, some sites are struggling to find enough willing people to get vaccinated every day.

Abigail Knox of Fulton County will be eligible starting Monday due to her health and said she is thrilled: It means she may finally see her mother, who lives in Ohio, for the first time since the pandemic began. But when she went to the state’s new website, she hit a wall.

Fulton County resident Abigail Knox set up a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for herself and her husband with help from a Facebook group that assists people with finding places to get the shots. (Contributed photo)

Credit: Special

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Credit: Special

The website,, offers some appointments next week but is not yet programmed to schedule the new categories of people: Those with certain health conditions that put them at risk and anyone ages 55 to 64.

Knox was eventually able to register by giving up on the state and finding a commercial pharmacy through help from people in a Facebook group. “It’s the only way we’re able to help each other and find ways to get shots,” Knox said.

“It means a lot to me to see my parents and protect the people I care about.”

Line getting longer

Public health officials expect Georgia to have 235,000 of first doses a week to distribute.

But the state will have to move fast to get the doses to all the Georgians who can join the line. By Georgia Department of Public Health estimates, about 5 million of the state’s about 8 million adult residents will now be eligible.

That appears to be an underestimate, though.

Among those newly added to the pool are those with compromised immune systems, lung disease, cancer, diabetes and sickle cell disease. Those populations are proven to be more vulnerable to severe disease and death from the pandemic. Those with high blood pressure or who are pregnant also are eligible.

The number of people in those groups is dwarfed, though, by another group added for Monday: the overweight and obese. They represent 64.8% of all 10.6 million Georgians, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and all of those who are 16 years of age or up will be eligible.

Others may join the line as well, since the state didn’t impose screening requirements to prevent line jumping.

Dozens line up to get the COVID-19 vaccine at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. On Monday, the state will open eligibility to more than half of Georgia's adults.

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Still, experts interviewed by the AJC did not think the state was inviting too many people too fast. They said the state should vaccinate as many as it can. The issue is that the state is not moving fast enough to get the shots in arms.

Mark Rosenberg, a former CDC researcher and former head of the Task Force for Global Health, said the top priority right now should be getting ahead of the variant viruses spreading in Georgia, and heading off any future mutations that could be more vaccine-resistant.

“It looks like the supplies of vaccine are going to increase very quickly,” Rosenberg said. “The trick will be to get absolutely as many people vaccinated as we possibly can.”

Does not compute

The first time Georgia expanded the eligibility pool, allowing all those 65 and older to get vaccinated, local health department websites crashed, and the state had no centralized system to sign up for doses.

Later, the state set up a registration system for shots at public health departments, and those trying to get vaccinated and experts alike said it was a step in the right direction — but insufficient.

While Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday announced the latest expansion, anyone who goes to the website this week — or calls the registration phone number — will be told they can’t register if they can’t say they meet the old requirements. They can only leave contact information and be notified when the site is able to register them.

Georgia Emergency Management Agency Director James Stallings acknowledged that the website would not be able to register people newly eligible for vaccine until 6 a.m. Monday.

“Our website has got to take a little change on that,” Stallings said.

Many Georgians have found it easier to register on local public health websites or those of private pharmacies.

Georgia’s reliance on multiple web-based signup systems creates another problem, said computer modeling expert Eva Lee, director of Georgia Tech’s Centers for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare. People are likely making multiple appointments to cover their bets, then showing up for the one that’s most convenient but not canceling the other appointments so others can take them.

The state needs one central website, she said, that can set up appointments anywhere, while also setting up mobile walk-up vaccination sites that don’t require appointments to serve those who don’t own computers.

Ashley Chen, who works in technology sales and lives in Duluth, started the Georgia Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, which now numbers 5,000 members. Up to 100 people post daily, desperate to get a vaccine, sharing stories, tips, frustration and joy.

“There’s a gap between official policy and what the government is doing and how this is playing out,” Chen said.

All of these issues have created a lagging vaccination system that must step up to meet the big moment Monday. Rosenberg noted the state’s recent last-place ranking in CDC data for its pace of vaccinations.

“The bad news is we’re ranked number 51,” he said. “The good news is there are 50 models for how we could do it better.”

Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.