ROME, Ga. — Dr. John Cowan cut a lonely figure at a recent Republican rally in northwest Georgia.
Not only because a few months earlier he had lost a GOP primary to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman serving as the event’s headliner, but because he was offering conservative activists coronavirus vaccines. And there were no takers in the crowd of hundreds.
As Cowan roamed the open-air pavilion trying to drum up interest, Greene and other Republicans on stage railed against mask mandates and vaccine requirements. The Floyd Medical Center staffers working the mobile clinic outside the rally, he said, were targeted with “snide” remarks from attendees. Not a single shot was administered.
The hostility toward the vaccination effort was no isolated incident. Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s top health official, said for the first time this week that Georgians aligned with the anti-vaccination movement disrupted several recent inoculation drives — and forced one to shut down entirely.
“It’s wrong. It’s absolutely wrong,” Toomey said. “These people are giving their lives to help others, to help us in the state. We in Georgia could do better. We should be thanking these individuals who are trying to get lifesaving vaccines to our state.”
The harassment represents a new front in the state’s fight against a lethal fourth wave of COVID-19 that’s pushing infections and hospitalizations to levels not seen in Georgia since January peaks.
Even as officials struggle with inoculation rates among the nation’s lowest, these reports of concerted efforts to derail vaccination drives sparked worry among public health experts and spurred outrage among politicians.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
“Public health officials are getting booed in places, they’re getting harassed, when this should be a time to come together,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease specialist.
Toomey said she only recently became aware of the disruptions. Her office said public health staff have been “harassed, yelled at, threatened and demeaned by some of the very members of the public they were trying to help.”
In one South Georgia county, residents protesting the vaccinations tracked down public health employees and bombarded them with hostile messages and misinformation about the vaccine.
And a mobile vaccination event in an unspecified North Georgia county was canceled after an “organized” group of people showed up to harass and name-call public health workers, said Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for Toomey.
“Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” she said.
Nydam did not disclose more details of the specific incidents.
The backlash poses a new problem for public health workers scrambling to protect more vulnerable Georgians from a variant of the virus that preys on those who have not been vaccinated.
Health officials are already grappling with misinformation and resistance to the vaccine, which scientists say is the best tool to prevent the spread of the pandemic, prevent serious complications and reduce the risk of hospitalization for those who do get infected.
Now state leaders must contend with the threat of the sort of disruptions that have taken place in other states including California, where far-right activists have joined the state’s well-established anti-vaccination movement to stage protests discouraging attendees.
“If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine,” Del Rio said. “But don’t impede people who do want to get their shots. It’s un-American.”
‘Unite in these tough times’
The backlash only complicates efforts to increase vaccination rates in Georgia. About 43% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, lagging the national average of roughly 53%.
And this week, Georgia reached an unfortunate new milestone. The rolling seven-day average for positive COVID-19 cases rose to 9,641 per day Tuesday, according to state health data, surpassing the previous early January high.
Gov. Brian Kemp has repeatedly urged Georgians to get their shots but firmly opposes the idea of mandating them. Earlier this year, he signed an executive order banning so-called “vaccine passports” to require proof of vaccination to receive state services.
He’s taken a more limited approach, including giving most state employees a day off on Friday to encourage vaccinations and announcing a new health care subsidy for those who have received their shots.
Shortly after Toomey detailed the threats, Kemp urged Georgians to reflect back on the sense of shared purpose in the early days of the pandemic and “unite in these tough times and not be divided.”
Those words don’t go far enough for critics of Kemp’s approach who demand more concrete action to discourage other demonstrators from messing up vaccination drives.
“Being threatened for administering lifesaving vaccines? After Jan. 6, we can’t ignore these things,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat and microbiologist, invoking the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
She called on Kemp to “address this with the same vigor, task forces and committees” he’s leveraged to critique Atlanta’s crime rate.
“They pick and choose the things they want to raise alarms about,” Clark said of the state’s Republicans. “We should really be alarmed with our public health officials being threatened. This is not something we can blow off.”
At the Rome event at the Coosa Valley Fairgrounds, the Floyd Medical Center staffers offered vaccines and vouchers for free popsicles at a neighboring food truck, though very few people wandered by.
A hospital official said several attendees informed staffers they had already been vaccinated and some “shared that they were not in favor.” But no one leveled threats at the health care workers, and no one directed the staff to shut down the event.
Cowan, a neurosurgeon, figured there was little chance of persuading anyone at the rally to get vaccinated.
But he donned blue scrubs and mingled with the crowd anyways, trying to show that health officials aren’t “scary people forcing poison on them but fellow citizens trying to help.”
“This is becoming a disease of the unvaccinated at this point,” he said. “And I have only seen regrets from those who have not gotten the vaccine.”