A ‘vaccine governor’? Kemp tries to reframe image as state races to contain pandemic

In a fourth-floor conference room at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Gov. Brian Kemp talked about what has consumed most of his time since a new year dawned: the state’s ongoing fight to effectively distribute the coronavirus vaccine.

Surrounded by a group of empathetic but concerned public health experts, the Republican governor watched a video about the storied medical school’s efforts to contain a pandemic that’s exacted a disproportionate toll on Black Georgians before offering his analysis on the state’s situation.

“I hate to say we’re in a good place because we’re fighting this battle every day, as you know, but our vaccination battles have continued to progress very well,” Kemp told the officials around a socially distanced table.

The new year has presented Kemp with dire political challenges. His approval ratings have plummeted over the past year, in large part because President Donald Trump blamed him for his November election defeat.

Not only must he navigate a fractious Republican Party still under Trump’s sway, but he also faces a likely rematch with archrival Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp narrowly defeated in 2018. And the centerpiece of his health care policy was thrown into doubt Friday when the Biden administration pulled back approval of a plan to overhaul the state’s Medicaid program.

The first-term governor is trying to regain his footing with an intense focus on the state’s vaccination plan, holding 14 press conferences, 30 media interviews and eight visits to distribution sites since Dec. 14 to detail the state’s effort to contain the pandemic.

His allies hope that embracing the role of a “vaccine governor” could help reframe his public image — and distance him from the political and coronavirus crises of 2020, when his party suffered grievous election losses and his pandemic approach came under fire from leaders of both political parties.

“He’s doing a good job of getting the number of vaccines in people’s arms. Yes, there was a rough start, but we’re getting around 160,000 vaccines a week, and they’re getting distributed,” said state Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican and physician who was on the state’s coronavirus task force.

“He’s being criticized for a lack of supply — and he has no control over it,” Watson said. “It’s a supply issue, not an issue about actually administering it.”

A chaotic start

The state’s approach, which health officials long warned would be messy and unpredictable, has been plagued by missteps at the state and federal level. Computer systems crashed, phone lines were overloaded, shipments of doses were delayed and expected reserves didn’t exist.

Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor of public health at Georgia State University, said the “rocky rollout” of the state’s vaccine plan is only a part of the problem.

“Our governor is failing to match resources to need, and we have failed to invest in the needed infrastructure, systems and workforce,” Heiman said. “I’m also very worried about the impact of quickly pushing healthy people aged 65 and older ahead of essential workers, including teachers, in the vaccine prioritization.”

Kemp’s administration expanded vaccine eligibility in January to include those 65 and older, which significantly increased the number of people on the list.

Tina Mewborne, a licensed practical nurse, prepares doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine last month at the Medical Center of Elberton. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses. State officials are hoping some logistical problems will be solved with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine now being reviewed. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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At the same time, he’s denied requests from education officials to inoculate teachers ahead of schedule, saying that adding teachers to the list would make the state’s “severe” lack of supply even harder for elderly Georgians at high risk for severe illness and death to obtain the vaccine.

(Teachers are now scheduled to receive vaccines in the state’s next wave. Health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, law enforcement officials, and those over 65 are now eligible for vaccines.)

“Everybody’s telling me we can do more if we have more” vaccine, Kemp said at one event. At another press conference, he compared the soaring demand to the crush of fans “you’d see for a Georgia-Alabama SEC championship football game.”

Late Friday, Kemp’s office pointed to a milestone toward ”returning to normal” by announcing that more than 1 million Georgians had received at least one dose of the vaccine and roughly 350,000 were fully vaccinated.

‘Not going to be perfect’

Critics see a lack of institutional effort, starting with an underfunded state Department of Public Health cushioned by a one-time surge of more than $1 billion in federal spending since the spring. They say prioritizing public health earlier could have financed a streamlined computer network to track people as they receive doses and paid for more local health staffers.

Amber Schmidtke, a public health microbiologist who publishes a newsletter on Georgia’s battle with COVID-19, said she’s distressed that some of the rural counties that helped put Kemp in office also have the highest death rates in the state.

“When the vaccine effort is as important as it is, perhaps determining his own reelection prospects, then why did the governor kick the responsibility for its rollout down to public health districts and local health departments,” Schmidtke said. “Why isn’t every resource at his disposal devoted to this effort?”

The governor has acknowledged the uneven rollout as he’s maintained that Georgia is doing the best it can with a limited supply. He and other administration officials hold up hope that the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, now pending federal approval, will help with logistical challenges.

He’s also vented about the slow pace of vaccinations, a lagging rate that put Georgia in the bottom tier of states, as throngs of people eligible to get the vaccine have waited to be inoculated because of limited supplies.

“We are throwing everything we can logistically at this. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s a massive undertaking. We have a lot of work to do,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But we’re going to throw every resource we have available to make sure there’s no group of demographic or geographic area that’s left out.”

It’s one of the reasons the governor went to Morehouse last week to discuss the inequity of vaccine distribution and barriers to access for underserved and vulnerable communities. But without metrics to track vaccinations by race and ethnicity, it’s impossible to accurately assess how deeply rooted the problem is.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, receives his second dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination shot earlier this month at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Smyre says that after meeting with Gov. Brian Kemp, he has a better understanding of the supply problems the state is facing in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines. "I didn't know it was that critical," Smyre said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

State Rep. Calvin Smyre candidly told the governor at a recent coronavirus briefing that he’d been inundated with complaints from infuriated constituents. After the meeting, the Columbus Democrat said he came away with a better understanding of the state’s struggle to keep up with demand, calling it a “positive step” in the governor’s strategy.

”I feel better about the situation and hearing him explain it to us in terms of supply and demand,” Smyre said. “I have a better understanding about the issue of the supply — I didn’t know it was that critical.”

Union City Mayor Vince Williams, president of the Georgia Municipal Association, told Kemp that local governments are ready to be willing partners as more doses become available and more Georgians become eligible to receive the vaccine.

“I know his heart is in the right place. He wants to make sure every Georgian gets vaccinated,” Williams said. “But it won’t be easy, and we’ve seen that now with the first deployments.”