All Georgia adults will be eligible for coronavirus vaccines starting Thursday

‘Our ticket back to normal’

All Georgia adults can receive coronavirus vaccines beginning Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp said as he announced a dramatic expansion of eligibility in a state still facing challenges in distributing the lifesaving doses.

The expansion, which will cover Georgians age 16 and over, comes less than two weeks after the state expanded eligibility to people age 55 and older and those suffering from “high risk” medical conditions — a category defined so broadly it encompasses more than two-thirds of the state’s adult population.

“Confirm your spot in line as quickly as possible,” said Kemp, who added that he will get his vaccination Friday. “This is our ticket back to normal, and we’re getting closer to that point every day.”

About 1.1 million Georgians are fully vaccinated in a state of nearly 11 million people, according to state data, and more than 2 million have received at least one dose, including roughly three-quarters of Georgia’s senior citizens.

Kemp’s announcement on Tuesday means that Georgia will join a small group of states, including Alaska and Mississippi, that have so far opened COVID-19 vaccinations to all adults. A growing number of other state governments have announced plans to quickly expand eligibility within weeks.

Earlier this month, Kemp announced that Georgians as young as 55 and those with certain “high-risk” medical conditions would be eligible to receive the vaccine. Under the wide-ranging definition of those conditions, most Georgia adults became qualified to get the shots.

One large group of Georgians now eligible to get the vaccine is college students. There are more than 340,000 students in the University System of Georgia. Several University System schools said Tuesday that they are prepared to vaccinate more students once they get additional doses.

But supply of the vaccine remains tight in parts of the state, particularly in metro Atlanta, where many residents are traveling to other parts of Georgia to make appointments in areas where there’s less demand for the doses.

In a major step, the federally supported mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta will start working Wednesday to administer 6,000 shots a day, and it is offering evening hours to reach more people.

And state leaders hope the federal government’s plans to send an additional 42,000 doses a week over the next few weeks to the stadium, the largest vaccination site in the Southeast, will ease the demand problem. Overall, Kemp said Georgia received more than 450,000 doses of vaccines this week.

About 220 active-duty military members were at the stadium Tuesday, preparing to join state and Fulton County health officials in the expanded vaccination effort.

Bethune Elementary School first-grade teacher Byron Thomas, who was at the stadium Tuesday to get a shot as part of a vaccination program for Fulton County teachers, marveled at getting the vaccine at the home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United.

“Who would have believed it would be used like this,” said Thomas, 53, who lives in Lithia Springs.

Officials hope to vaccinate 210,000 people during the expanded operation period, which is scheduled to conclude on May 19. Officials said the site will be open most days and as late as 10 p.m. two nights a week, likely Mondays and Wednesdays. The later hours are primarily to help people with trouble getting child care to set up appointments during the day.

The goal is to vaccinate people, particularly African Americans and Latinos, who may have trouble traveling to other sites. Officials said they’ll work on various outreach efforts to those communities. Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts noted vaccination rates for those groups are disproportionately lower than other segments of Georgia’s population.

“We must work to reverse that trend and reach everyone,” Pitts said.

The military members, nearly all from Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry Division, will help with vaccinations. Vaccination pods will be operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Fulton’s health department.

“It’s a unique mission,” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Chadwick said. “It’s an important mission, and we couldn’t be happier to be here.”

Meanwhile, doses continue to be available in South Georgia. Health officials said a state-run vaccination site in Albany closed last week because of limited demand — it was averaging less than 100 appointments a day — and the supplies were redistributed to other clinics.

Another state-operated vaccination site in Savannah had booked so few appointments when it opened last week that officials opened it up for drive-up appointments to help increase vaccinations.

“We cannot afford to have vaccines sitting in the freezers, whether it’s in metro Atlanta or in rural Georgia,” Kemp said.

The state’s expansion comes as Georgia continues to struggle to vaccinate more residents. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Georgia is vaccinating people at one of the nation’s slowest paces.

Kemp has criticized news coverage of the vaccination rate, citing higher rates of vaccination for higher-risk Georgians, and he cited CDC statistics that showed Georgia received far fewer doses of the vaccine per capita than other states.

Walgreens employee Taylor Truelove rushes a new supply of the Pfizer vaccine into St. Philip AME Church during a vaccination event earlier this month. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia health officials are in a race against the clock to vaccinate as many people as possible before coronavirus variants take hold that could be more contagious and, potentially, reinfect people who have recovered from the disease.

The state recently detected its first case of a particularly worrisome variant first found in Brazil, and health officials have reported dozens of other cases of variants that originated in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Complicating the effort is a vaccination sign-up system that can be confusing for some Georgians.

Barbara Barnhart of Tucker, a retired flight attendant, got her second dose last month, and she now spends a few hours a week helping others navigate the various vaccine sites. She’s picked up tips over the past few weeks, such as checking early with pharmacies that open slots at 7 a.m.

By now, she’s helped about 50 relatives and friends — and dozens of others who have asked for help on a Georgia Vaccine Hunters Facebook group. She welcomed the governor’s announcement and urged Georgians to sign up as quickly as possible.

“I don’t want any more people to get sick,” she said. “I just want us to get back to normal life, and I believe this is going to make a difference in how quickly we can get there.”

Getting an appointment: Key things to know

Georgia earlier this month expanded from Phase 1a+ of its distribution plan for COVID-19 vaccines to include anyone over age 55 and anyone who has a medical condition that is deemed high risk by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, the pool will expand to anyone 16 and over.

You may want to look for appointments in more than one county, especially if you live in metro Atlanta. Any Georgia resident can receive a vaccine at any available site in the state.

For state and county vaccination appointments, check these two websites first:

If you have a doctor or doctor group that you normally see for annual checkups, check its website; some are now offering vaccination appointments to more patients.

The massive COVID-19 vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium is open for appointments and will start administering the vaccine Wednesday. The site will have the capacity to administer 6,000 vaccines a day, seven days a week. They will include evening appointments as late as 10 p.m. two nights a week.

Please be considerate: If you sign up for more than one appointment, cancel any that you are not going to use. Otherwise, you might keep someone else from getting an appointment or cause a dose to go to waste.

Crowd sourcing: Because the process is potentially confusing, unofficial groups and individuals are using Facebook and other social media to help people find appointments. One example is the Georgia Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, which numbers more than 7,000 members.