‘It’s like gold’: One county struggles to meet demand for COVID-19 vaccine

February 19, 2021 Decatur - A resident of AHEPA One Senior Apartments Hsiu Ying Lee receives a first dose of the Moderna vaccine from Pharmacist Demetrios Gavalas at AHEPA One Senior Apartments in Decatur on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
February 19, 2021 Decatur - A resident of AHEPA One Senior Apartments Hsiu Ying Lee receives a first dose of the Moderna vaccine from Pharmacist Demetrios Gavalas at AHEPA One Senior Apartments in Decatur on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

DeKalb County’s top health official said they are drowning in demand for COVID-19 vaccinations and coping with vaccine supply shortages that have rippled across Georgia and the nation recently.

The winter storms that have ravaged much of the nation also halted vaccine supply lines, leading DeKalb to cancel appointments and carefully administer what they have on hand.

DeKalb Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Ford said she hopes the vaccine supply will improve and the state’s online registration might soon be used to help the county manage the surging demand for appointments.

“It’s going to be a rough couple of weeks, but we’re hoping that the floodgates (of vaccine supply) will open soon, and we’ll be able to start really deploying our staff, who are ready,” she said.

In the meantime, she said all the county can do is improve its distribution infrastructure, keep volunteers on standby and welcome assistance from outside groups.

Friday, the county continued working to expand its vaccine reach to underserved populations by moving a vaccination site to the Doraville MARTA station — a location designed to make transportation less of a barrier. A program run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also sent health workers to low-income senior homes to vaccinate willing residents, who otherwise would’ve struggled to register and find transportation to vaccine sites.

Rampant demand

Ford said the limited supply has forced the county to focus only on second doses, leaving residents hoping for their first appointment out of luck.

“They are literally bombarding my emails, and I just don’t have the time for individual responses,” she said.

DeKalb has the capability to vaccinate 1,000 people each day, but Ford said the most vaccine doses they’ve received in a week is 3,500. Earlier in the state’s vaccine rollout, Ford said a lack of staff, volunteers and infrastructure was hindering vaccination efforts, but those issues have reversed recently.

“We started off with vaccine and no manpower, and now we have manpower and no vaccine,” she said.

A White House adviser said Friday that 6 million doses have been delayed as bad weather forced many injection sites to close and held up shipments of doses.

No shipments of the Moderna vaccine made it to DeKalb after Monday. The county had to cancel hundreds of second-dose appointments, because those residents needed Moderna and can’t use Pfizer, which the county has in small supply, as a substitute.

ExploreDeKalb cancels some COVID-19 vaccinations due to weather-related supply issues

The county has periodically opened registration for residents to receive their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but only dedicated — or lucky — seniors are able to get in line in time.

“The problem right now is that the amount of slots that become available are so small that they literally vanish in less than an hour,” Ford said. “We had 1,400 slots available, and they were gone in 55 minutes. Almost by the time you post it, it’s gone.”

Georgia is allowing residents who are 65 and older, healthcare workers, first responders and elderly caregivers to receive the vaccine. According to the state’s vaccination plan, about 1.8 million residents fall under one of those categories, and each patient would require two vaccine doses.

The state Department of Public Health reported Friday nearly 1.7 million vaccine doses had been administered through Friday afternoon. Data compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows DeKalb has administered nearly 90,000 vaccinations.

Vulnerable groups

Nearly half of the seniors at a low-income housing community near Decatur were able to skip the registration drama and get vaccinated.

Residents at the AHEPA One Senior Apartments were provided vaccine access through the Pharmacy Partnership for Long-term Care Program, a partnership between the CDC and several large pharmacies, including Walgreens, CVS and Managed Health Care Associates, Inc.

Steve Beck, president and CEO of the apartment complex’s management company, said some residents can’t wait to get vaccinated, while others have to see it first.

“A lot of times, people are kind of ‘let’s wait and see what happens to my neighbor,’” Beck said. “But in the end, I think we’ll end up seeing about 75% of the residents get vaccinated through this program.”

February 19, 2021 Decatur - A resident of AHEPA One Senior Apartments Bok Lee receives a first dose of the Moderna vaccine from Pharmacist Demetrios Gavalas as her husband Jong Lee (right) looks on at AHEPA One Senior Apartments in Decatur on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
February 19, 2021 Decatur - A resident of AHEPA One Senior Apartments Bok Lee receives a first dose of the Moderna vaccine from Pharmacist Demetrios Gavalas as her husband Jong Lee (right) looks on at AHEPA One Senior Apartments in Decatur on Friday, February 19, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Joseph Hart was among 35 residents to get vaccinated the first chance he got. The 70-year-old man, a retired paratransit driver, said he knows several people who have been vaccinated, which helped bolster his confidence to get the shot.

“There’s a lot of rumors out there saying you can die,” he said, mentioning that he’s heard many of his neighbors cite the baseless rumors that Hank Aaron died from a COVID-19 vaccine. The Fulton County Medical Examiner said the baseball legend’s death was from natural causes.

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Residents at the apartment complex are among the most vulnerable groups that county officials are attempting to reach first — elderly residents who lack transportation, technological skills and money.

Ford said she didn’t know about the initiative but is grateful for anything that takes stress off the county’s shoulders.

“Vaccine supply is just insane at this time,” Ford said. “It’s like gold trying to get it, so anyone who has access who can share it with out vulnerable communities is a partner of mine.”

‘I wish I had a solution’

In addition to the new MARTA vaccination site, the county is exploring other options to find harder-to-reach groups.

Ford said her office is working with faith-based organizations to identify areas of need, and they’re also looking for impoverished areas that are helped by nonprofits like Meals on Wheels. The board of health also has 10 mobile medical units that can be deployed on-site to administer vaccines door-to-door in underserved areas. The county purchased the units with federal COVID-19 relief funds.

However, all of the preparation is a moot point until vaccine supply increases.

ExploreGeorgians fear debacle when 2nd vaccine shots come due

Ford is holding out hope that a statewide system will help alleviate the strain on local health departments and provide more options for residents. Until that system launches, she said residents will have to watch the DeKalb Board of Health’s website, dekalbhealth.net, like a hawk to get a dose.

“I wish I had a solution, because sometimes it’s just about who is more persistent and that’s not really how this is supposed to go,” Ford said. “It’s supposed to be who needs it the most.”

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