A sign at the Bleckley County Health Department on the first day of Phase 1a Plus vaccine access.

A sign at the Bleckley County Health Department on the first day of Phase 1a Plus vaccine access in Georgia alerts visitors of canceled appointments, illustrating the state's early struggles in its vaccination effort.

Credit: Grant Blankenship/GPB

The pursuit of a COVID-19 vaccine in Georgia — amid busy phone lines, patchy supplies from county to county and private providers hesitant to schedule crucial second doses — remains a logistical challenge even for the most truly patient.

That might change some with tens of thousands more doses due to circulate in the general population as well as with a coming one-stop website to get connected to vaccinations from public health.

But in a Thursday news conference, Gov. Brian Kemp said neither that news, nor the news the state had successfully used about half its shipped vaccine allotment, was reason for complacency.

“I want to be clear with Georgians watching this,” Kemp said. “Our hospitals cannot handle another surge in COVID-19 patients on top of their current workload. This is not an all-clear signal. We've got to continue to keep our foot on the gas.”

Piling onto the sense of urgency, Kemp said the state has now confirmed five cases of a new, more contagious variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Georgia is near the bottom among U.S. states in getting the vaccine out to the public, having only vaccinated about 5% of the state’s population. The push to vaccinate more people across the state comes as cases are spiking, with COVID cases now topping 800,000 including over 12,400 deaths.

Kemp said to expect the number of vaccine doses to become accessible to the public to grow from 80,000 to 120,000 a week. That’s because commercial pharmacies that had been taking a chunk of the state’s allotment every week to help inoculate residents in long-term care homes no longer need to skim off the top.

“This is certainly a positive step forward in our vaccine distribution efforts, and it will mean 50% more supply than we were previously able to provide to the expanded 1A population,” Kemp said, referring to the recent expansion of vaccinations to people over 65 and first responders.

Even so, Georgia Department of Public Health head Dr. Kathleen Toomey said it’s a given that vaccine demand will still outstrip supply until the flow of vaccines from the federal government increases.

“This is a federal program,” Toomey said. "All the logistics are done at the federal level. You know we direct where the vaccine goes in the state, but the transport of that vaccine is all directed by the federal government."

Part of President Joe Biden’s plan for COVID-19 response includes using the Defense Production Act to spur vaccine production. That could still take some time.

Meanwhile, people in Georgia are still struggling with both public health departments and private providers just to get vaccine appointments. Toomey said that struggle includes the first wave of people who already succeeded in getting a first dose now fighting to find the second dose.

Both vaccines currently available, made by Pfizer and Moderna, require a second booster shot to be fully effective.

“Some providers have said they won't provide second doses,” Toomey said. “We are going to work with providers to ensure that that does continue, that they do provide that second dose.”

Toomey said public health clinics will begin scheduling second doses before a person is done receiving their first.

By Friday at least one health district, the South Health District which takes in Lowndes County, canceled first dose appointments in order to speed up the process for people waiting on dose No. 2. District spokesperson Courtney Sheeley said the decision came down to not having enough supply to do both first and second doses at the same time.

"I mean we want to make sure that people are fully immunized with this. I mean, we don't want to give them just a 50% chance of having immunity to COVID," Sheeley said.

Experts agree that even the first dose confers something like 50-60% of the full vaccine's effect. While the CDC says that's reason enough to wait as long as two weeks past the prescribed period for the final booster dose, others say changing vaccination protocols midstream is just inviting trouble. Either way it's a decision fostered by the lack of vaccine supply.

Toomey also addressed what has been one of the chief sources of confusion among those hunting for the vaccine: Am I restricted to the county where I live?

“Go where you can, where there's availability,” Toomey said, encouraging people to feel free to look across county borders.

“Because we don't want you waiting in line,” she added. “We hope by early next month, we will have a scheduling tool that will be uniform across all counties — that it won't be a different scheduling tool county by county.”

In the meantime, Toomey encouraged local health departments to keep a waiting list of people who are unsuccessful in securing appointments so that when people with appointments are no-shows, they can still get vaccine doses to others who want them.

Toomey said she’s even heard of one hospital where, at the end of the work day, staff offered the last remnants of vaccine in vials to anyone in the waiting room who wanted a shot.

“We won't waste it,” Toomey said. “We will put it in arms.”