Tammi Brown, Chatham County Health Department Nurse Manager, was among the first in Georgia to receive the vaccine against COVID-19, as Memorial University Medical Center emergency room nurse David Wilson awaits another dose and Gov. Brian Kemp and State Sen. Ben Watson look on.

Tammi Brown, Chatham County Health Department Nurse Manager, was among the first in Georgia to receive the vaccine against COVID-19 on December 15, 2020 as Memorial University Medical Center emergency room nurse David Wilson awaits another dose and Gov. Brian Kemp and State Sen. Ben Watson look on.

Credit: Emily Jones/GPB

The Georgia Department of Public Health is working to get COVID-19 vaccines in the arms of eligible Georgians, but employees there do not get a break from the work they had before the pandemic.

That’s what Democratic state Sen. Michelle Au, a physician from Johns Creek, found out as she was helping vaccinate people in Norcross for the health department on a recent weekend.

“You see how much else they also have to do, and it was Saturday, so they didn’t have quite the volume for that kind of thing, but they’re handling stuff for WIC, the women and children’s food program, they’re handling other vaccines, all the childhood vaccines are in that same fridge, essentially, trying to be delivered,” she said.

“So there’s all these elements of the public health structure that are supposed to be running under non-pandemic circumstances that they do an admirable job of handling but are still under-resourced, and now we’re piling this huge task on top of it,” Au added.

Georgia has underfunded public health for at least a decade, and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the problems caused by that to the forefront, said Georgia Budget and Policy Institute senior policy analyst Laura Harker.

To maintain the per-person spending levels the state had in 2009, the overall public health budget needed to be $749 million in 2020, she said. Instead, lawmakers allocated $698 million. Gov. Brian Kemp’s spending plan for next year allots $691 million to the department.

“There’s definitely been a need in the past about 10 years since the Great Recession to keep up with our growing population and growing public health needs, but we’ve actually been spending less per person since the funding cuts during the last recession on public health and we haven’t really restored that,” Harker said.

More money could be a big help for problems Georgia has struggled with since before the pandemic, including high maternal mortality and prevalence of substance abuse and HIV infection, said Laura Colbert, executive director of the nonprofit Georgians for a Healthy Future, but the state will receive money from the federal government to fight COVID-19. The agency received more than $1 billion in COVID-19 relief as of Jan. 15, and more is likely to come.

“It is disappointing to see a flat public health budget, but I (balance) that with they are receiving additional dollars from Congress,” Colbert said. “The COVID-19 relief funds are going to be targeted specifically to COVID-19 relief, but state funds are needed to keep up activities on all of these other fronts, like substance use and maternal mortality and HIV.”

Static public health spending as the state’s population grows could be even more harmful as the pandemic keeps experts away from working on the problems they know best, said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a public health microbiologist.

“Everybody who works in public health right now is working on COVID-19, even if that is not their job,” she said “So the people that typically work in STDs or HIV, are being re-tasked to work on COVID concerns. Meanwhile, those other issues that they’re supposed to be there for, they don’t go away just because there’s a pandemic happening.”

The vaccine rollout has brought the underlying issues with the state’s health system into the spotlight. As of Friday, Georgia ranked second only to Alabama in administering the amount of COVID-19 vaccines it has received, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

Toomey called into question the accuracy of some counts of people vaccinated in the state, saying that some shots are not properly logged into the reporting system.

“This morning, when I looked, the New York Times had us having distributed only 203,000 vaccines in people’s arms,” she told lawmakers at a state budget hearing Tuesday. “Well, I know because I know what we’ve done. And we’ve looked at our numbers, we’ve actually given 451,169 doses, most of those were first doses because we’re just beginning to move to second doses. So there is some challenge there with how the vaccinations are being counted. We recognize that our immunization registry was not being utilized by all providers appropriately or accurately, we have developed strike teams to help providers do that.”

From Jan. 11 to Jan. 18, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported an increase from 206,900 to 423,011 vaccines administered. That marks the second week in a row the state has doubled its vaccination numbers and is an encouraging sign, said Gov. Brian Kemp.

“Thanks to the hard work of public health officials and the support of private sector partners like Publix, Kroger, Ingles, Walmart, CVS and Walgreens, we are making strides to vaccinate our expanded 1a populations,” Kemp said in a statement.

A new administration in the White House could result in more COVID-19 vaccines in Georgians’ arms, Toomey said. She blamed outdated technology and inconsistent supply for the state’s struggles to immunize residents.

“At this point in time, we often don’t know from week to week exactly how much vaccine will be available or when it will be coming,” she said. “With a change in administration mid-week, we are anticipating that there may be additional vaccine doses made available in the coming days to weeks.”

Joe Biden, who is set to be sworn in as president Wednesday, has pledged to distribute 100 million doses of the vaccine in his first 100 days in office.

Healthcare workers, law enforcement personnel, long-term care staff and residents and adults over 65 are eligible for the shot, but many have been unable to make an appointment. Only 30% of the state’s nursing home residents and staff have been vaccinated, Toomey said.

The state health department reports nearly 685,000 confirmed cases and nearly 47,000 hospitalizations as of Tuesday afternoon. More than 11,000 Georgians have died from COVID-19. Tuesday marked the deadliest day in the state with 170 newly-reported deaths. The previous record of 157 deaths was set four days prior on Jan. 15

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.