Opinion: A rocky path on COVID vaccine rollout

People making multiple appointments may be putting COVID-19 vaccine doses at risk
People making multiple appointments may be putting COVID-19 vaccine doses at risk

THE EDITORIAL BOARD’S OPINION

COVID-19 has confounded our state from the beginning. And now, as we enter the crucial phase of vaccinating Georgia’s citizens, hopes for a smooth, well-understood and reliable effort have been quickly dashed.

It’s important to note that vaccinating millions of people, which requires two doses across three weeks, was never going to be simple, easy, or inexpensive.

Couple that with doubts created by the rush to develop the vaccine, and a well-entrenched if small anti-vaxxer movement, and it’s obvious that we’ve got a challenge that could take a long time to resolve.

There’s reason to place blame at all levels of government, from Washington on down. The important thing, though, is to quickly make improvements to better speed the flow of the coronavirus vaccine to those whose lives may well depend on it. A virus that’s killed more than 10,000 Georgians so far compels us to do nothing less.

In analyzing the problems we’ve seen, it’s clear that confusing and shifting stances of the federal government haven’t helped Georgia, or any state. Washington has not been able to show clear leadership since the time the first cases were recorded.

For example, federal officials have been allocating the scarce vaccine to states on a per capita basis. Critics argued that method shortchanges states with higher percentages of elderly or minority residents – groups that have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19.

The feds’ Operation Warp Speed effort will now be prioritizing vaccine doses to states that most quickly distribute them.

Either method doesn’t seem to best allocate the medicine according to need.

Georgia, too, has struggled in effectively and quickly rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations. The state’s reported pace of administration is in the bottom half of the country after ranking last week among the worst U.S. states by this important measure.

State officials say they’re moving to fix a data reporting problem that led to underreporting of vaccine doses given here.

The larger problem, according to reporting in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is that the state isn’t being sent enough vaccine. Experts had predicted that scarcity as manufacturers race to produce millions of needed doses.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who has every reason to push the vaccination process, vented frustration at a Tuesday press conference when he said, “There is simply vastly more Georgians that want the vaccine than can get it today.” Kemp went on to assert that the state would take possession of unused vaccine if needed to ensure that vaccinations continue. “If it takes me firing up my pickup truck and doing it myself, so be it.”

That offer, alas, won’t make a dent in Georgia’s problems with distributing and administering the COVID-19 vaccine. The federal government’s largely left that to states to figure out. Georgia, in turn, likewise pushed that process down to individual providers.

This, while many of the state’s hospitals and health departments are already overwhelmed with treating COVID-19 cases and testing for the virus.

It didn’t help matters either that the feds initially left it to states to pay the majority of the cost of the herculean vaccine effort. That’s led to struggles in Georgia and elsewhere as some resource-constrained local health departments have had to cut back on COVID testing to focus staff on giving vaccinations.

That’s an unacceptable public health tradeoff, we believe. The state should quickly find additional needed resources to buttress the vaccine effort. It should help, too, that the feds last week announced new funding to support vaccination work. Georgia was awarded nearly $96 million of that money.

Communication is also important during a pandemic of a force unseen in our lifetimes. Georgia’s stumbled here too. We lack a central website that people could have used to seek vaccine appointments, with that information quickly funneled to local providers. Our systems for notifying people about how to get a vaccination have also been lacking. Even some medical professionals and health care providers say they’ve struggled to get information from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Systems for tracking who’s been vaccinated and reporting adverse reactions have also struggled. Georgia had systems in place. But the federal government set such a tight deadline for reporting vaccinations that overwhelmed healthcare providers couldn’t keep up. And at nursing homes, responsibility for reporting adverse reactions has fallen on overstretched staff.

None of the critiques made here should be seen as an attempt to bash this state’s dedicated frontline healthcare and public health workers who’re laboring mightily – and at some risk to their own safety – to get this tremendous, and vital, job done. We join Georgians in thanking them for their tireless work.

Even under ideal circumstances, vaccinating millions of people would be a heavy lift. The logistics are complex and the cold storage requirements for vaccines create another hurdle for some areas of the state. And the need for all possible speed further complicates an already-difficult task.

There’s a lot of finger-pointing that can be done, given the seriously flawed vaccine rollout that we’ve seen thus far. The good news is that people are being vaccinated here, steadily if slowly.

COVID-19 is a scourge that warranted a coordinated and concerted effort of federal, state and county governments. That’s far from what we’ve seen thus far.

The pandemic has certainly taught us some important lessons, including during this latest episode in which distribution of the vaccine has been frustrating. At each stage of the pandemic, weaknesses in our national and state approach to public health have been exposed. That should inspire Georgia politicians and public health leaders to examine and push for improvements in our state’s public health infrastructure.

There’s no reason to believe that we won’t be greeted by a similar challenge again, perhaps sooner than we’d like. Let’s be ready next time.

The Editorial Board.

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