Georgia to expand vaccine sites as state’s coronavirus inoculation rate lags

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that five new centers will open in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties on March 17 to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccine.    STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that five new centers will open in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties on March 17 to administer doses of COVID-19 vaccine. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Bolstered by an expected influx of coronavirus vaccine supply, Gov. Brian Kemp expanded the number of mass vaccination centers on Wednesday and said doses of a newly approved vaccine would be prioritized for teachers as the state scrambles to improve a rock-bottom inoculation rate.

The governor announced that five new centers will open in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties on March 17, part of a race to inoculate as many Georgians as possible before new, more contagious COVID-19 variants take hold.

The new sites join existing centers near Albany, Atlanta, Macon and northeast Georgia, part of a budding infrastructure ahead of Monday’s expansion. That’s when the state will allow teachers, school staffers, day care workers, adults with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with “complex medical conditions” to receive the vaccine.

Federal data from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Georgia lags behind every other state in the U.S. in the pace of vaccination, and some public health experts say Kemp isn’t acting aggressively enough to effectively distribute the doses.

The governor pushed back on the data, saying the state’s lagging pace in administering first doses of the vaccine was because of “intense demand” from health care workers and Georgians over 65 who are in need of their second shots.

He also said nearly 60% of Georgia’s seniors have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with a national average of 49% — a reflection, the governor said, of the state’s focus on the most vulnerable Georgians.

“The media will always focus on the worst number, not the number that matters. I think that’s what’s happening in this case,” he said, adding that state figures show a higher rate of inoculation than the CDC data reflects. “We’ve got to target the population that’s hit the hardest, and you’re not seeing that on any site.”

The governor’s critics say he was too hesitant to expand the vaccine pool to Georgia’s educators and too slow to open a broad network of mass vaccination sites. State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat and microbiologist, said “extremely frustrated” is the best way to define her reaction.

“The governor of Georgia has effectively made the state being No. 1 for business his calling card while being completely complacent with Georgia being last in everything else,” Clark said.

‘Full time’

The expansion to include teachers and others will add an estimated 1 million Georgians to the pool of eligibility at a time when the state’s limited vaccine supply is expected to grow. Regulators on Saturday approved Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, and rival drugmaker Merck will help produce the shot, significantly expanding the nation’s stockpile.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the U.S. was on track to have enough vaccine in supply for “every adult in America by the end of May” — two months earlier than expected — as he directed states to prioritize vaccinating teachers so more students can return to in-person learning.

Despite the optimistic outlook, the increase in doses underscores the challenges faced by state health officials to actually get the surge of supply into the arms of Georgians.

More than 2.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in Georgia, but the supply still can’t keep up with the demand. Still, Georgia’s vaccine capacity is slowly growing: The state administered nearly 350,000 vaccinations in the most recent seven-day stretch. And more than 18,000 vaccinations were completed during the first week at the four state-operated sites.

Kemp said the state has given at least one dose to more than 860,000 Georgians who are 65 and older — a group that accounts for roughly 77% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

The state expects to receive some 83,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, and Kemp said Georgia will prioritize the shots for educators to hasten a “full five-days-a-week return to the classroom.”

Most of Georgia’s public school districts have resumed in-person learning, but several — including Clayton and DeKalb counties — have yet to do so.

Kemp’s frustration at the holdouts has grown in recent weeks, though he’s stopped short of threatening to use his executive powers to force them to restart in-person instruction.

“As I have said many times before: Every student belongs in the classroom five days a week. Full time. As soon as possible,” Kemp said. “That is my expectation moving forward, and we look forward to partnering with local districts to ensure that happens quickly.”

‘The end of the tunnel’

The expansion of the state’s vaccine eligibility list also drew frustration among those who still aren’t part of the pool, including those under 65 with medically fragile conditions, and professors and others in the state’s higher education system.

Most professors are working on campus and are worried about being infected by students since federal data has shown high COVID-19 rates among young adults, said Matt Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor.

“The return to a normal college environment would be welcomed by all faculty,” said Boedy, who is also president of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors. “But without vaccines for all — staff and students — we remain vulnerable to COVID.”

The governor said he would announce within days that he’ll add more Georgians to the vaccine priority list, but he stressed that demand still outstrips the state’s supply. He also said he’s not yet ready to loosen coronavirus restrictions, as the governor of Texas did this week.

“We can’t let our guard down. We’ve got to keep doing this for another month or two, to get closer to true herd immunity,” Kemp said. “I just feel like we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Staff writers Eric Stirgus and Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.

Mass-vaccination centers

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that the state will open five more centers on March 17 to administer vaccinations for COVID-19.

The new centers will open in Bartow, Chatham, Muscogee, Ware and Washington counties.

The state already has centers open at four sites: the Delta Flight Museum outside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Albany Georgia Forestry Commission in southwest Georgia, the Habersham County Fairgrounds in Clarkesville and the Macon Farmers Market.

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