Georgia to launch mass vaccination sites amid supply shortage

Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday announced that the state will soon open vaccination sites across Georgia. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.
Gov. Brian Kemp on Thursday announced that the state will soon open vaccination sites across Georgia. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Georgia will open its first state-run vaccination sites as health officials race to rapidly inoculate vulnerable residents amid a tight supply of the COVID-19 vaccine and an intensifying political battle over Gov. Brian Kemp’s strategy to contain the pandemic.

The governor on Thursday announced 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.

The sites will open Monday and initially dispense about 22,000 shots per week, though Kemp said the state’s network will eventually expand to more locations. Georgians eligible for the vaccine can pre-register for an appointment and those currently ineligible can sign up for information about when they can get the vaccine at https://myvaccinegeorgia.com/.

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The state is scrambling to administer vaccines to at-risk Georgians as new, more contagious variants of the disease emerge. But Kemp is facing increasing pressure from Democrats and other critics to move teachers higher up in the line for vaccines, even while the state lacks adequate supply to treat Georgians 65 and older.

Kemp announced results of a state Department of Education survey that found about 45% of roughly 171,000 staff members said they would choose to be vaccinated, though the poll didn’t include about three dozen school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools.

He said the findings will help inform the state’s decision over the next two weeks to expand the pool of Georgians eligible for the vaccine, adding that it shows “there’s not as much demand there as some may have thought.”

“It’s good for us to have that data because it does allow us to plan for when we expand,” he said.

Ronald Murphey looks away as he receives his  COVID-19 vaccine during an event in January for Fulton County School employees and their spouses who are 65 and older. Gov. Brian Kemp is facing pressure from critics to move teachers higher up on the priority list for the vaccine. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Ronald Murphey looks away as he receives his COVID-19 vaccine during an event in January for Fulton County School employees and their spouses who are 65 and older. Gov. Brian Kemp is facing pressure from critics to move teachers higher up on the priority list for the vaccine. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Credit: Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com

Meanwhile, Democrats are stepping up their efforts to draw a direct line between President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan and an expansion of vaccine supply. The pending legislation includes $400 billion for provisions to expand vaccine distribution, testing and aid to help local schools reopen.

After a tour Thursday of Grady Memorial Hospital, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff called on Congress to act with “all possible speed” to pass the measure, which also includes $1,400 stimulus checks for many Americans, $400 weekly unemployment benefits and a push to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025.

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“It’s so vital that Congress pass this legislation swiftly,” Ossoff said. “There is a challenge in increasing vaccine supply, and this legislation will include significant investments in making more vaccines available for the American people so that by midsummer, if not before, there are enough doses to get everybody immunized.”

Georgia, which now receives about 190,000 vaccine doses a week, is benefiting from a slight uptick after the White House announced it will distribute about 2 million more doses each week to U.S. states because of a shift in how the Pfizer vaccine is allocated.

It’s not immediately clear whether the state will receive a more substantive increase in vaccine supply. Biden said this week that vaccines should be available to anyone in the U.S. who wants one by the end of July.

The political pressure is mounting on both sides of the aisle for more decisive action. Republicans have seized on a potential political opening of their own, slamming U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other Democrats up for reelection next year in battleground states with demands they more assertively call for schools to reopen.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a digital ad this week questioning whether Warnock stands with “students or with D.C. Democrats and the teachers unions” over whether to keep school-age children from lagging behind. Democrats countered by calling for their counterparts to pass the relief bill and stop with the “political games.”

The picture is more nuanced in Georgia, however, where many school districts have reopened for in-person learning but some, including populous DeKalb County, offer only virtual classes. Kemp has urged school districts to reopen but has stopped short of seeking to force them to do so.

“Our kids need to be in the classrooms. I’ve held that position for a long time. We’re not going to waver on that issue,” Kemp said. “But I’ve left that up to the local control.”

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Registered nurses Ashanit Booker, center, and Arnita Dunwell prepare the COVID-19 vaccine shot during a vaccination event put on by the DeKalb County Board of Health and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Registered nurses Ashanit Booker, center, and Arnita Dunwell prepare the COVID-19 vaccine shot during a vaccination event put on by the DeKalb County Board of Health and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Some of the counties with the highest numbers of Black residents have among the state’s lowest vaccination rates. Statewide, whites make up about 63% of vaccine recipients, slightly above the 60% nationwide vaccine rate found in a recent study by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black Georgians make up about 16% of vaccine recipients. Both the state report and the CDC have a large percentage of unknown recipients.

DPH officials said vaccine recipient data by race is entered by providers when they administer the vaccine. The data is often missing or may not be supplied by the recipient, they said.

State data shows the highest vaccine distribution rates are generally in smaller, rural counties in North Georgia and South Georgia. In metro Atlanta, the highest distribution rate is in Fulton County, the state’s most populous county, where more than 215,000 vaccinations have been done.

Clayton County has one of the state’s lower vaccination rates, which Kemp mentioned in explaining how the site near Hartsfield-Jackson was selected.

Some rural counties have higher rates if they’re home to medical centers that serve multiple counties, Georgia Department of Public Health officials explained.

Shivani Patel, an assistant global health professor at Emory University, said the vaccine rates in smaller counties mirror national data. Patel, a lead researcher on Emory’s COVID-19 Health Equity Dashboard, believes state leaders should be comparing the composition of who is currently prioritized against who is getting the vaccine.

“Once we identify those gaps, we need to think about barriers to vaccine coverage and uptake at the county down to the ZIP code,” Patel said. “Do we have the right infrastructure? Do communities have access to transportation? Where might internet access limit people’s ability to make an appointment? Where do we have indication of high hesitancy?”

Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who has been tracking COVID-19 data in Georgia on a widely read blog, said many people have been traveling to different counties to get the vaccine, so she’d like to see detailed data of how many people in each county have been vaccinated.

Schmidtke noted death rates have been higher in rural Georgia, in part because many of those counties have no hospitals and the lack of preventive care. Schmidtke suggested Georgia set up vaccination sites at large locations, such as high school football stadiums and churches.

“This is an example of where we can meet (recipients) where they are and not have them come to us,” she said.

State-run vaccination sites

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday that the state will open vaccination sites Monday at the following locations:

  • The Delta Flight Museum outside Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
  • The Albany Georgia Forestry Commission in southwest Georgia
  • The Habersham County Fairgrounds in Clarkesville
  • The Macon Farmers Market.

More locations will eventually open.

The sites will initially dispense about 22,000 shots per week.

Georgians can pre-register at https://myvaccinegeorgia.com/ for appointments now, even if they’re not yet in the pool of eligible recipients.

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