Kemp set to add teachers, ‘vulnerable’ Georgians to vaccine priority list

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to expand the list of people eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine to include teachers and school staffers, a significant step in containing the pandemic that comes after months of criticism from frustrated parents and educator groups.

State officials say Kemp will announce Thursday that teachers and school staff would be allowed to join a group that now includes those who are 65 and older, first responders, health care workers, and staffers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Kemp is also expected to expand eligibility to some “medically fragile” Georgians with higher health risks, along with people deemed “critical employees,” though he didn’t offer specifics.

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“We’re continuing to look at the data. We just need to know how many doses of the vaccine that we’re going to have,” Kemp said after a tour Wednesday of the vaccination center at the Delta Flight Museum.

“My goal has been to continue to try to protect the most vulnerable, which is why we have the classes that we do now, and that is what we’ll be looking at as we expand,” he said.

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Until recently, Kemp and public health officials have balked at adding the state’s roughly 450,000 educators and school employees to the pool of those eligible for vaccines, saying there’s already not adequate supply to meet the demands of higher-risk Georgians.

But the Republican said last week that a state survey that found 45% of educators would choose to take the vaccine helped shape his policy, adding that he was surprised there’s “not as much demand there as some may have thought.” And he’s told educators, including the Atlanta Board of Education, that he “absolutely” will expand the criteria as more doses arrive in the state.

“Throughout vaccine distribution, the governor has prioritized protecting the most vulnerable and returning Georgians to normal,” Kemp spokeswoman Mallory Blount said, adding that he has “publicly committed to any expanded vaccine criteria including school staff and vulnerable Georgians.” Details, she said, would be announced Thursday.

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The expansion would come as the state’s allotment of vaccines begins to rise. Georgia now receives about 215,000 first doses of vaccine a week, up from about 150,000 earlier this month. And a new federal study appeared to pave the way for approval of a one-shot coronavirus vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson, which would bring a third effective inoculation to the U.S. market.

Georgia would join at least 28 states that have made some or all teachers eligible for the vaccine, though that won’t mean educators would have easy access to the treatment. Demand still far outpaces supply, and many who were already eligible for the vaccine still struggle to find appointments.

On Monday, Georgia opened four mass vaccination sites in Albany, Clarkesville, Macon and the Delta Flight Museum near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to dispense thousands of doses of vaccines each day, and many of the appointments were snapped up quickly.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Overall, the state’s administered more than 1.75 million doses of the vaccine in Georgia, accounting for about 89% of the state’s supply. Officials are scrambling to inoculate as much of the population as possible before more contagious strains of the virus take hold. They are particularly worried about Georgians over 60, who Kemp said account for 85% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.

“We really just need vaccines. I know y’all have heard me say that, but that is the fact,” he told reporters, adding that as the state receives more doses, officials could scale up the mass vaccination sites and open new centers in more parts of Georgia.

Kemp’s decision comes amid a broader debate over school openings in Georgia. While most school districts have resumed in-person learning, some holdouts, including DeKalb County, have yet to reopen their doors to students, frustrating the governor and others who say it’s safe to resume coursework so long as safety guidelines are followed.

It’s also heightened a political divide between critics who said teachers should have been prioritized earlier and others who agreed with Kemp by putting the elderly first.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, whose district includes parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, said parents have been complaining to her about lax safety standards. She faulted Kemp for refusing to mandate masks in schools, then moving others ahead of teachers for vaccines.

“Our schools are open, but we are not doing what we need to do to protect our teachers,” she said. “And I think in light of the very candidly hazardous situations that our teachers are in, we also owe them the respect of prioritizing them and school staff to receive a vaccine.”

The governor has repeatedly cited a state Department of Education survey, which included districts encompassing about 171,000 staffers, in forming his decision and that his office is working with a group of superintendents to develop rollout plans for when teachers become eligible.

“I wish we had enough supply to open it up to everybody,” Kemp said. “I believe we could ramp up the sites, we could have mobile vans. Hopefully that day is coming, but it isn’t here right now. But we have been moving the needle.”

Staff Writers Helena Oliviero and Ty Tagami contributed to this article.