UPDATE: Gov. Brian Kemp announced Wednesday that — effective March 15 — Georgia will lower the age for vaccine eligibility to 55 years old and also add those with “high-risk” conditions as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That list includes asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, obesity and being overweight.
“As we have from the beginning, we will protect the most vulnerable to severe illness, hospitalization or death, and enable Georgians to get back to normal,” Kemp said.
The governor held out the prospect of further expansion of the eligibility rolls in April. “Provided we continue to see increasing vaccine supply, it is our intent to open up vaccination to all adults the first part of next month.”
Darryl Konter remembers hearing Dr. Tom Frieden, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say more than once: “Vaccines don’t end pandemics. Vaccinations do.”
Konter, a 68-year-old Dunwoody resident, worked for seven-plus years on CDC’s anti-smoking efforts. Frieden’s words came to mind as Konter talked about his own experience getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
When Gov. Brian Kemp added Georgia’s 65-and-older population to the priority tier for vaccination, Konter quickly applied and received his first Moderna shot in mid-January, and his second in early February, at a parking lot site operated by the DeKalb County Board of Health. “My primary motivation was self-preservation, and was really the ability to help get back to a more normal life,” which Konter said includes the opportunity for he and his wife Roslyn to travel.
During a March 3 briefing, Kemp rejected criticism based on Georgia ranking last among the states in the percentage of its adult population that has received a first vaccine dose. “I think we’re doing very well for whom we’re targeting,” he said. “The media will always focus on the worst number, not the number that matters. I think that’s what’s happening in this case.”
Back on March 2, 2020, Kemp announced the state’s first two positive tests for the novel coronavirus designated SARS-CoV-2. In the year since, the state has recorded more than 823,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 56,000 hospitalizations, and more than 15,300 deaths with a confirmed link to the virus.
Kemp preferred to talk about how the state has administered at least one dose of vaccine to 860,000 Georgians age 65 and older, nearly 60 percent of that age cohort, compared with a national average of 49 percent. The 65-plus population accounts for more than three-quarters of the state’s COVID deaths.
“I believe that we have done more than most any state to protect those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, with the limited supply that we have been given by the federal government,” Kemp said. He added that his goal was to “prioritize those most at risk for hospitalization and death. I’m convinced our approach has been the right one.”
Georgia’s priority group began with frontline medical personnel and first responders and then expanded to those 65 and older. It expanded again March 8 to include teachers and staff in public and private K-12 schools as well as in pre-K programs and day care centers; adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers; and parents of children with complex medical conditions.
As the state expands its eligibility roll, the federal government has increased Georgia’s weekly allocation, most recently to 223,000 doses from 198,000. The state’s initial 83,000-dose shipment of the Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine will be earmarked for educators and school staffs, to help meet another Kemp priority. “As I have said many times before: every student belongs in the classroom five days a week. Full time. As soon as possible.”
A CDC report issued Feb. 26, based on a study of COVID-19 transmission and spread in the Cobb County/Douglas County school district, found that “initial infections among educators played a substantial role in in-school SARS-CoV-2 transmission and subsequent chains of infection to other educators, students, and households, highlighting the importance of preventing infections among educators in particular.”
Overall, the state has administered first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, both of which require a second, “booster” shot, to 1.29 million Georgians, 12.2 percent of the state’s adult population. Including U.S. territories, only Puerto Rico trailed Georgia in that category. The state ranked better in the percentage of its adult population to have received two shots.
Kemp said that the state had administered 2.1 million total doses, including first and second shots. As of March 3, Georgia statewide had received about 3 million vaccine doses, meaning that more than 900,000 doses remained in refrigerators. In addition to the state’s apparatus, the federal government allocates vaccine to pharmacies, grocery chains, big box stores, hospitals and health clinics. “We can’t control what the federal government is sending to other people that the state is not administering itself,” Kemp said. “We can’t control who’s holding second doses; I don’t think they should be doing that.”
The governor also announced that on March 17 the state will open five more large-scale vaccination sites, adding to four that began operating a few weeks ago. The nine state sites will have a combined capacity to vaccinate 45,000 people per week.
The White House announced March 5 that the Mercedes-Benz Stadium soon will become a federally managed, eight-week vaccination site capable of administering 42,000 doses per week. The federal government will route vaccine directly to the stadium site, separate from the state sites.
Kemp touted major declines in the number of cases and the number of deaths in recent months. “We’re not seeing the kind of outbreaks as in the past,” which struck nursing homes and long-term care facilities hard, he said.
However, the latest White House report on the states’ COVID-19 response provided a cautionary note, as Georgia ranked sixth in new cases and seventh in new deaths per 100,000 adults, for the week of Feb. 20-26.
Kemp was asked if he would follow the example of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and lift all COVID-19 restrictions. “That’s something I’m certainly looking at,” Kemp said, adding that while Georgia did not impose a statewide mask mandate, an “impressive number” of Georgians were wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines. “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.”
Meanwhile, more than 11,000 people have gone to a Facebook page — “GA COVID VAX APPT HELP (unofficial)” — where Georgians are providing each other with real-time tips, virtually around the clock, on where appointments are available.
That is how Mark Berger connected by phone with “Melissa,” in a Walmart pharmacy in Morrow, Ga., and scheduled a second Moderna dose for his 60-year-old sister Nanci, who is developmentally disabled and lives in the Atlanta Group Home.
“I think it is wonderful that these volunteers are willing to help complete strangers navigate this challenging process during a very challenging time. At the end of the day, we are all safer the sooner everyone gets vaccinated,” Berger said. “The fact that the federal, state, and local governments could not coordinate this effort, even though they had months to figure this part out, is disappointing for an advanced country like ours. There are shots available and being wasted. It’s just a matter of matching arms with doses.”
The Facebook page also led Elana Himmelfarb to a Tuskegee, Ala., pharmacy, where she received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine and where she will return for her second.
Himmelfarb is a self-employed, certified developmental disability specialist, who works primarily with young adults and adults with autism and other genetic- or neurological-based issues, and with Georgia Tech’s program for individuals with developmental disabilities. She is still recovering from a June bout of COVID-19. “I’m a long hauler,” as people like her are known. Himmelfarb said that she joined the Facebook group out of desperation and “When I got on and saw what people were doing it was just so heartening.”
Georgia has not yet added college educators and staff to its eligibility roll, but comments on the Facebook page suggest that an untold number have found Alabama welcoming.
“Some of my clients are not able [to use Zoom]. The lion’s share are, but are really hungry and need more face-to-face, one-on-one” interaction, which Himmelfarb is eager to resume.