Vaccinations are ticking up in Georgia — but just barely

Cody Luke sits and waits after receiving his first COVID-19 vaccine shot on the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. Luke was one of only 11 people who were vaccinated that day. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Cody Luke sits and waits after receiving his first COVID-19 vaccine shot on the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. Luke was one of only 11 people who were vaccinated that day. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Some minds have changed, but the state will be largely unprotected when the delta surge peaks

CALHOUN, Ga. — Enough is enough, Amie Chitwood decided. With the pandemic roaring back and a super-contagious COVID-19 strain now putting young people in hospitals, she couldn’t go on being the only vaccinated member of her family.

But Chitwood’s husband, a 55-year-old leukemia survivor, was afraid the vaccine would make him sick or leave him with long-term side effects. Her 23-year-old son didn’t want to bother with making an appointment or going out of his way to get the shot. Her 25-year-old daughter didn’t want to miss work, and her daughter’s husband wanted no part of the vaccine.

Such reasoning has been hard for Chitwood, 43, to fathom, especially since her family lives in the same North Georgia community where a 5-year-old child died last month after contracting COVID-19, a reality check on the threat posed to the unvaccinated. So Chitwood is taking on their hesitancy with some of the most potent tools at a mother’s disposal — pleading, prodding, harping, never giving up.

“I’m afraid he’s going to get sick, and it’s going to kill him,” she said of her husband. “I’ve been begging him. He’s going to see his doctor in a couple of weeks, and I’m going to tell her to tell him he needs to get it done.”

Her family’s feelings, though, are more common than not in Calhoun and across much of Georgia. Even an increasingly dire outlook for the pandemic has not moved most Georgians who are still reluctant to take the COVID-19 shots.

While some are changing their minds, the uptick in vaccinations is not enough to significantly improve Georgia’s position. Less than half of all Georgians have received even one shot, and only two in five are fully vaccinated. The numbers reflect a vaccine hesitancy that leaves the state largely unprotected when the surge from the delta variant hits its projected peak later this month or in September.

It’s been a month since the earliest news reports about COVID-19 case numbers ticking up again in pockets of the state with low vaccination rates. Instead of rushing to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, Georgia’s pace of doses administered has sped up by only a few percentage points, an analysis of state data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

And even if vaccinations did rapidly accelerate, anyone starting a Pfizer or Moderna shot regimen now wouldn’t reach maximum protection for five to six weeks. Those with only one shot of those vaccines are still considered vulnerable to the delta variant, and the vaccines aren’t authorized for children younger than 12.

“There are millions and millions of susceptible people in Georgia,” said Mark Rosenberg, former president and chief executive of the Global Task Force for Health and a critic of Georgia’s handling of the pandemic. “You’re looking at a lot of unnecessary deaths and a lot of unnecessary illness.”

Vaccine skepticism runs deep in some circles, based on concerns about the vaccines’ relatively quick rollout to rampant misinformation about potential risks to conspiracy theories about a dawning new world order.

“Just in conversations with people, it comes down to they’re not sure about it,” said Charlton County Administrator Hampton Raulerson, whose county in southeast Georgia has one of the most abysmal vaccination rates in the country, with just 15% fully vaccinated on Thursday, according to the state. “The fact that it’s not been fully approved (by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and distrust of the federal government, is a large part of it.”

ExploreGeorgia hospitals report spikes in COVID-19 hospitalizations

Before the recent news about delta variant, Georgia’s vaccinations had nearly flatlined. On June 1, slightly less than 40% of all Georgians had received at least one vaccine dose, according to state data; by July 1, that figure had creeped up to only 42.4%. It now sits at 47.2%.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s seven-day-rolling average of probable and confirmed coronavirus cases is 11 times higher than in early July, topping 4,800 on Thursday and reaching almost 4,200 on Friday. Georgia’s hospital beds are filling back to levels not seen since the winter surge.

Combined ShapeCaption
Wyatt Gibson, 5, died July 16 after contracting COVID-19, according to a GoFundMe page and his obituary. The boy lived in Calhoun, and his father Wes is a Whitfield County Sheriff's Office lieutenant. (Photo: GoFundMe)

Credit: Handout

Wyatt Gibson, 5, died July 16 after contracting COVID-19, according to a GoFundMe page and his obituary. The boy lived in Calhoun, and his father Wes is a Whitfield County Sheriff's Office lieutenant. (Photo: GoFundMe)

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Wyatt Gibson, 5, died July 16 after contracting COVID-19, according to a GoFundMe page and his obituary. The boy lived in Calhoun, and his father Wes is a Whitfield County Sheriff's Office lieutenant. (Photo: GoFundMe)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

In the midst of the worsening situation came the death of Wyatt Gibson, the 5-year-old son of a Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant. According to family members, Wyatt had previously been a healthy boy with no underlying conditions. The family thought he had food poisoning, but doctors at a Chattanooga hospital diagnosed him with strep and staph infections and COVID-19. He died July 16 after suffering a massive stroke.

Wyatt’s father and infant sister also tested positive for the virus. The family declined to publicly disclose whether his parents had been vaccinated.

Eva Lee, a vaccine distribution expert and director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare, estimated the state needs to have at least 75% of the total population fully vaccinated to avoid another round of mass hospitalizations and mounting deaths from the coming surge.

“Just in conversations with people, it comes down to they're not sure about it. The fact that it's not been fully approved (by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and distrust of the federal government, is a large part of it."

- Hampton Raulerson, Charlton County administrator

Without a significant uptick in shots, Georgia won’t approach that level for months or possibly years, the AJC’s analysis found.

“The interesting thing about Americans is that they behave exactly the same as before,” Lee said. “They will look at it escalating, with all the bad news, and then not do anything. The longer we drag on it, the happier the virus is. Viruses continue to mutate, and that means more transmissibility.”

Close to home

Still, the needle is moving, ever so slightly.

In the past two weeks, all but three Georgia counties — Marion, Chattahoochee and Stewart, all among the state’s least populous — have seen an increase in the running 7-day average of first doses administered.

In 39 counties, the rolling seven-day average at least doubled. However, in many of those, the numbers are relatively small — increases counted in single digits to a few dozen. But in Lowndes County in South Georgia, for instance, an average of 81 additional people received shots each day in the seven days ending Aug. 3 compared to the seven days before July 22.

In metro Atlanta, the percentage increases were more modest, but hundreds more people received shots each day. Statewide, the average numbers of doses administered each of the past seven days rose by 13% from the prior week.

Combined ShapeCaption
Registered Nurse Judy Spaulding gives Cody Luke his first COVID-19 vaccine shot on the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Registered Nurse Judy Spaulding gives Cody Luke his first COVID-19 vaccine shot on the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Registered Nurse Judy Spaulding gives Cody Luke his first COVID-19 vaccine shot on the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

In Gordon County, where news of Wyatt Gibson’s death broke on July 19, the rolling seven-day average has since increased by 177%, to almost 60 per day.

One of those shots went into Georgia Fuller’s arm. Having survived a COVID-19 infection in November, she had no intention of being vaccinated, thinking the pharmaceutical companies developed the drugs way too quickly and they couldn’t possibly be safe.

But then the delta variant got her attention, particularly the detail that even vaccinated people are susceptible. She thought about her 72-year-old father and her 64-year-old mother, both vaccinated, both diabetics. She took her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Gordon County Health Department late last month.

“You don’t want to do anything to rush your demise, or anyone you love,” Fuller, 40, said. “So if I can take a shot, and maybe hurt a little bit, and protect the ones I love, OK.”

But the decision surprised some friends who, like her, lean Republican. “This is a Democratic pandemic,” she said they told her.

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Fuller, 40, of Calhoun, survived a coronavirus infection last year and wasn't planning to take a vaccine. But the spread of the delta variant, and the risk to her vaccinated parents, both diabetics, led her to change her mind. “You don’t want to do anything to rush your demise, or anyone you love," she said. "So if I can take a shot, and maybe hurt a little bit, and protect the ones I love, OK.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Georgia Fuller, 40, of Calhoun, survived a coronavirus infection last year and wasn't planning to take a vaccine. But the spread of the delta variant, and the risk to her vaccinated parents, both diabetics, led her to change her mind. “You don’t want to do anything to rush your demise, or anyone you love," she said. "So if I can take a shot, and maybe hurt a little bit, and protect the ones I love, OK.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Fuller, 40, of Calhoun, survived a coronavirus infection last year and wasn't planning to take a vaccine. But the spread of the delta variant, and the risk to her vaccinated parents, both diabetics, led her to change her mind. “You don’t want to do anything to rush your demise, or anyone you love," she said. "So if I can take a shot, and maybe hurt a little bit, and protect the ones I love, OK.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

In Whitfield County, north of Gordon, the rolling seven-day average of first doses has increased 137% since reports of Wyatt Gibson’s death, to almost 100 per day.

About 18 shots were administered last week at Peds Care, a pediatric office in Dalton that just started offering vaccines, with help from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Dr. Milca L. Hernandez-Aviles said more and more parents have asked about vaccinating their children, and they often bring up the death of the police officer’s son.

“I think it’s the first time that they feel it really close,” Hernandez-Aviles said.

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Milca L. Hernandez-Aviles, a pediatrician in Dalton, said her office has been getting more and more calls from parents asking questions about vaccinating their older children. They often bring up the death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson, from neighboring Gordon County, she said. “If your child is too young to get [the shot], maybe if everybody else in your family gets vaccinated, you’re offering protection to that kid,” she said. (Handout)

Credit: Handout

Dr. Milca L. Hernandez-Aviles, a pediatrician in Dalton, said her office has been getting more and more calls from parents asking questions about vaccinating their older children. They often bring up the death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson, from neighboring Gordon County, she said. “If your child is too young to get [the shot], maybe if everybody else in your family gets vaccinated, you’re offering protection to that kid,” she said. (Handout)

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Dr. Milca L. Hernandez-Aviles, a pediatrician in Dalton, said her office has been getting more and more calls from parents asking questions about vaccinating their older children. They often bring up the death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson, from neighboring Gordon County, she said. “If your child is too young to get [the shot], maybe if everybody else in your family gets vaccinated, you’re offering protection to that kid,” she said. (Handout)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

But some parents are hard to reach, she said. They tell her that death counts have been inflated, that the vaccination is unnecessary because most people survive COVID-19, or that the government is using vaccines to tag people with tracking devices.

“Let me tell you, it’s hard,” Hernandez-Aviles said. “Because you look at the child, and you know the benefits of certain vaccinations including this one, and you worry about them and not being able to make a decision for themselves, just having to go with what their parents decide.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Nurses Maria Rivera, from left, Judy Spaulding and Cherie Welday head for the exit, wrapping up the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Nurses Maria Rivera, from left, Judy Spaulding and Cherie Welday head for the exit, wrapping up the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Nurses Maria Rivera, from left, Judy Spaulding and Cherie Welday head for the exit, wrapping up the last operating day of the mass vaccination site at the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus on July 30. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Reachable refusers

Among Whitfield County’s unvaccinated is James Ford, 67, who lives on a mountain in Rocky Face outside Dalton. He’s no anti-vaxxer or coronavirus denier. He gets his flu shot every year, and last year he took a pneumonia shot. Since COVID-19 cases flared back up, he’s gone back to wearing masks in public and carrying hand sanitizer. When Ford became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year, he even signed up for an appointment at the hospital in Calhoun.

But then he grew concerned that the vaccine might contain aluminum, to which he has a skin allergy, and Ford said his doctor didn’t give him a solid reassurance that it’s not among the ingredients. (None of the vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. contain aluminum.)

“The longer we drag on it, the happier the virus is. Viruses continue to mutate, and that means more transmissibility."

- Eva Lee, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Healthcare

The mainstream media, which he doesn’t trust, tells him one thing. Internet sources tell him something else. Ford has drawn a line — he’ll take a vaccine only when it receives full FDA approval.

“It’s just so much misinformation floating around about what’s in it and what’s not in it,” he said. “And then the longer you wait, you’re seeing that, well golly, people that take the vaccine are getting infected. I just don’t know what to do.”

Combined ShapeCaption
James Ford, 67, of Rocky Face, Ga., hasn't taken a COVID-19 vaccine because of his own safety concerns. “There’s just so much misinformation and changing of information, and all," he said. "If the vaccine gets proven beyond an emergency basis, then yeah, I’d probably take it. But this all been just rushed through.” (Handout)

Credit: Handout

James Ford, 67, of Rocky Face, Ga., hasn't taken a COVID-19 vaccine because of his own safety concerns. “There’s just so much misinformation and changing of information, and all," he said. "If the vaccine gets proven beyond an emergency basis, then yeah, I’d probably take it. But this all been just rushed through.” (Handout)

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
James Ford, 67, of Rocky Face, Ga., hasn't taken a COVID-19 vaccine because of his own safety concerns. “There’s just so much misinformation and changing of information, and all," he said. "If the vaccine gets proven beyond an emergency basis, then yeah, I’d probably take it. But this all been just rushed through.” (Handout)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Hoping to boost vaccinations among people such as Ford, the FDA has accelerated its timetable to approve the Pfizer vaccine, aiming for early September.

Amie Chitwood, of Calhoun, doesn’t want her family to wait that long.

On Tuesday, she met her son, Gene Patterson, at the Gordon County Health Department and watched him get his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. Patterson said it was time, since he’s starting a new job cooking at a truck stop that will put him in close proximity to other people.

Combined ShapeCaption
Amie Chitwood, of Calhoun, met her 23-year-old son, Gene Patterson, at the Gordon County Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, and watched him get his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. “I worry about my grandchildren going to school right now," Chitwood said. "They’re too young (to get the shots).” Patterson added, “I just don’t like going out of my way for things.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Amie Chitwood, of Calhoun, met her 23-year-old son, Gene Patterson, at the Gordon County Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, and watched him get his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. “I worry about my grandchildren going to school right now," Chitwood said. "They’re too young (to get the shots).” Patterson added, “I just don’t like going out of my way for things.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Amie Chitwood, of Calhoun, met her 23-year-old son, Gene Patterson, at the Gordon County Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, and watched him get his first shot of the Moderna vaccine. “I worry about my grandchildren going to school right now," Chitwood said. "They’re too young (to get the shots).” Patterson added, “I just don’t like going out of my way for things.” (Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com)

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

Credit: Johnny Edwards / Johnny.Edwards@ajc.com

But it was mostly his mother, he said.

“She was just nagging me about it. ‘You gotta go get it. Gotta go get it.’”

Chitwood’s husband, Scott, said he’ll probably get his first shot when his stepson gets his second.

“I’ve had just a little bit of a struggle with it, because of my compromised immune system,” Scott Chitwood said. “If it wasn’t for that, I probably would have had it already.”

AJC Data Reporter John Perry and Staff Writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.