Georgia Today: Behind Georgia's Sluggish Vaccine Rollout
When will you be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine? On Georgia Today, Andy Miller of Georgia Health News explains why the state is so far behind on its vaccine rollout.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. This week, over a quarter million school employees across Georgia finally became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. And Gov. Brian Kemp says the states working to expand access to even more of the population
Brian Kemp: As supply expands over the coming months, we will be able to increase capacity at these four initial sites, shift resources to other communities as needed, and stand up new locations to reach more Georgians.
Steve Fennessy: Still, three months after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration greenlit the first two vaccines shown to be effective against COVID-19, numbers are showing that Georgia ranks at the bottom compared to other states when it comes to the vaccine rollout. So what is behind our lagging vaccination rate and what could all this mean for those of us eager to finally return to something resembling life before the pandemic? For more, I'm joined this week by Andy Miller, editor and CEO of Georgia Health News, an independent nonprofit health news organization.
Steve Fennessy: Andy, let's start by going back in time a little bit, one of the things that was a glimmer of hope really for all of us amid all the darkness of 2020, was this promise of a vaccine. The vaccine is coming. It's coming. It's coming. And we all knew it was coming. We weren't particularly sure when. But in anticipation of that, the federal government actually asked all the states to start preparing plans for what their rollout was going to be so that they would have a plan in place. And because one of the criticisms that we've been hearing in the last several weeks about Georgia's vaccine rollout is, look, they have hundreds of thousands of doses that are still in the freezer. How come they're not going in people's arms?
Andy Miller: You know, that's a that's a very good question. It has troubled a lot of people to try to figure out what's really happening there? The state will say that providers, after they put vaccines into arms, they are slow to — to record this data in the state’s IT system that tracks vaccinations. And there certainly has been trouble with that vaccine tracking system. In fact, that the state has put in money in the current budget to improve it or to change it out. So we know that that's been a problem.
Steve Fennessy: So — so when I when I look at at the state's vaccine dashboard and it tells me that 81% of the vaccine shipped around the state have been administered — and which means 19% have not — are you saying that that that number might actually be misleading, that there might be more administered because the pharmacies and hospitals aren't reporting it?
Andy Miller: Well, the governor and state officials would say, yes, they are misleading. But — but looking at the CDC map of vaccine distribution, George's last right now in terms of number of doses administered per 100000 population, and obviously it's a terrible thing to be last. And there are people wondering, well, if we have a million doses sitting around somewhere, why have they not been administered? What's going on? Are we being as efficient as we need to be?
Steve Fennessy: What was Georgia's plan? Did it did it have one?
Andy Miller: Well, Steve, it's a good question. And this was always going to be a big logistical challenge for state governments around the country. I think what the state was hoping for was a more seamless rollout of vaccine that actually happened. It was it was a rocky rollout here.
Newscast: After the state received its initial batch of vaccine in mid-December, it is only now, nearly two months later, that the number of doses has started to rise again.
Andy Miller: Its efficiency has really improved over the last couple of months. But we found that the distribution was uneven to hospitals and to medical practices in the state.
Newscast: It’s no surprise the highest number of vaccine have been delivered to metro counties, those with the greatest population.
Andy Miller: And some rural practices, medical doctor practices were waiting for vaccines for a long time that they had ordered.
Brian Kemp: Our top priority has been to deliver whichever vaccines were approved to the people of our state in a safe, efficient and coordinated fashion.
Steve Fennessy: FDA approves two vaccines, one by Pfizer, one by Moderna, one week after the other, right before Christmas.
Brian Kemp: This long nationwide nightmare will end. The vaccine is on its way. Therapeutics, as we know, are getting more plentiful by the day. And I'm asking everyone to continue to hunker down and do a few simple things for the next few months. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing.
Steve Fennessy: States are getting ready. And there's all these photos we're seeing of the first person in each state getting her, his or her vaccine.
Newscast: Hospitals across metro Atlanta received its first batches of the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine. In Marietta, ICU nurse Amanda Early at Wellstar Kennestone volunteered to be one of the first to get the vaccine.
Amanda Early: We've gone through a lot of hardships and have overcome a lot. And this vaccine is really going to kind of be the light at the end of the tunnel.
Newscast: She says seeing what her patients have endured throughout the year is what inspired her.
Amanda Early: The sooner we get vaccinated, the sooner everyone can get back to living their life, you know, the way we were before COVID started.
Andy Miller: And so that's how it kind of rolled out. And these doses went to public health departments, went to hospitals and clinics, and went to pharmacies. And the efficiency rate is not as good as other states that have the same challenges that we face.
Steve Fennessy: Each state was free, basically, to come up with its own priority list. The CDC issued guidelines, but they weren't binding in any way. There's, you know, 50 states, so potentially 50 different approaches to how this is going to be done. What were some of the logistical preparations that the state had to make? For instance, who decided that, say, Northside Hospital would get this many thousands of vaccine in this particular week as opposed to some other hospital?
Andy Miller: I really don't have a great answer for that. I wish I did. I think that there was very uneven distribution. Those facilities that had those super-cold freezers certainly had an advantage over, let's say, a smaller rural hospital that didn't have that capacity.
Steve Fennessy: Because it's important to talk about how the — at least the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are stored. They need these ultra-cold temperatures.
Andy Miller: Right. The Pfizer vaccine was the super-cold freezer was needed. Moderna less so, but there was still a storage and temperature challenge there, too. And so what we heard was rural facilities lagging in terms of getting these vaccine doses versus large urban facilities.
Newscast: Turning now to the coronavirus right here in Georgia.
Andy Miller: The CDC in that second group wanted to target people who were essential workers, people who are out there interacting with the public all the time, and educators. And some states, in fact, most states started vaccinating teachers before Georgia.
Newscast: Is the governor's office saying in part in a statement that additional doses do not just appear out of thin air and the data is clear. Now, here's a closer look at the statement we got from the governor's office, which said in part, quote, Georgia is not currently receiving enough vaccine supply to provide priority vaccination to over 400,000 teachers and school staff.
Andy Miller: Teachers were facing this very difficult challenge of going back to teaching in the classroom. And we know that many school systems have difficulty spacing kids out, social distancing. Many school systems in the state don't require students to wear masks.
Pundit: So what happens if we go back to school? How bad can it be? Well have you seen what's happening where they're doing it? Georgia, three days after some schools reopen for in-person classes. What did they see? Permutations — exponential. Pop pop pop pop pop pop! They now have 250 students and staff sick or quarantining in the state,
Andy Miller: So teachers were kind of in the firing line here.
Pundit: Parents last week protested in Gwinnett County for in-person learning, even though 260 employees have tested positive or recently been exposed. The county's calling for teachers to begin working in schools even as classes kick off virtually next week. Now, one teacher says that requirement has given her no choice but to resign because there's no plan in place to keep her safe. Ashley Newman.
Pundit: Why is this your only choice?
Ashley Newman: My daughter. I have a four-year-old and I don't feel comfortable sending her back because the cases are skyrocketing in Gwinnett County.
Steve Fennessy: And as we sit here today, they've opened up the eligibility to teachers and educators, which numbers around a quarter million. What are you anticipating as the rollout to look like in the next month?
Andy Miller: It just depends on what county and school system you're talking about. I mean, some doing it on their own and some school systems are just working through the regular public health vaccination sites. You know, everybody wants kids in schools, in classrooms. Yet without being vaccinated, you know, they had real danger, particularly those with preexisting health conditions. And then there was a CDC study of the myriad of city schools recently that showed the teacher transmission between teacher and teacher and teacher to student was occurring. And it was occurring on a substantial level.
Steve Fennessy: In the middle of all this, of the vaccine rollout, of course, a new administration took control in Washington. President Trump was out and President Biden is. In what effect, if any, did that have on — on the vaccine distribution here?
Andy Miller: Well, I think you have to give some credit to the Trump administration for really prioritizing vaccine manufacturing. So that's to start with. But I think the federal government's getting more involved. And what they're trying to do there is try to hit hard-hit communities, high-risk communities. So I think that that's been very positive. I think that the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also going to be a big positive.
Newscast: And the company has promised to ship 20 million doses to the U.S. by the end of this month. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden says there will be enough vaccine for every American who wants one by the end of May.
Steve Fennessy: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one dose as opposed to Pfizer Moderna, which require two.
Newscast: That's great news for people who don't like shots, but also for populations that are more difficult to reach or might be less likely to come back for a second dose for any number of reasons.
Steve Fennessy: We spoke on Georgia Today a few weeks ago with our guest, Ellen Eldridge, about how some educators at that point were traveling to other states to get it to get a vaccine. And what I'm detecting now in people that I know who aren't technically eligible for the vaccine are somehow figuring out ways to — to kind of jump the line, to — to get a vaccine. Is this something that is of concern to state government because they can't go vetting everybody's assertion about, oh, I care for, you know, an elderly person or, you know, I have a sick child or some other thing. There's an honor system happening here, right?
Andy Miller: Basically, it is, especially if, you know, in the caregiver category would be much more of a gray area. But, yes, teachers have gone to other states and it has been a concern for state government. I mean, look what happened in Elbert County when there was a large medical practice that started vaccinating educators before they were in the priority list. The state really took some harsh action with penalties and — and making them no longer a provider for the vaccine. And recently, the state has sent out kind of an order to vaccine providers saying, you will follow our particular priority list or this is what's going to happen.
Steve Fennessy: Andy as you've followed this and looked at other states whose numbers are significantly better than — than Georgia's in terms of the percentage of the population who are being vaccinated, what are some of them doing differently from from what we're doing?
Andy Miller: Well, let's take the example of West Virginia now. It's a different type of state. It's much — I mean, we have rural areas, but West Virginia’s definitely rural. And what they decided to do is kind of unique. They have a lot of independent pharmacies in that state. And what they decided to do is focus giving doses to those pharmacies and they could go out into their various communities and, you know, vaccinate the residents who are local there. And it's worked really well. And — and I think to that, you know, we've always wondered why a state, not just Georgia, but any state wouldn't get some private company, whether it's a UPS or FedEx, to — to help with this logistical challenge that they face.
Steve Fennessy: And — and is that happening?
Andy Miller: Well, I mean, we were — we were told early on that the state was going to look at private companies to help. I'm not sure that that that's occurred other than the CVS/Walgreens partnership.
Steve Fennessy: Stay with us for more with Andy Miller from Georgia Health News on the state's vaccine rollout. We'll also hear about one community in southwest Georgia where the vaccination rate is higher than the states as a whole, but where advocates say residents of color lag behind white residents and getting their shots.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the states coronavirus vaccine rollout and why Georgia lags behind virtually every other state in getting shots into people's arms. At this time last year, the city of Albany saw its first cases of COVID-19. The city's main hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial tells NPR's Grant Blankenship that three quarters of the city's coronavirus deaths have been among black residents. Derek Heard, a family medicine physician, was born and raised in Albany. He got sick with COVID-19 last fall.
Derek Heard: The first week it felt like a really bad flu, bad fever that wouldn't go away. Body aches, you know, just listless, tired. The second week. That's when it got tough. Started getting short of breath. Even getting out of bed to go to the bathroom became a chore. Came to the hospital, got admitted, was in for three days and I was able to go home, but still suffering some of the aftereffects.
Steve Fennessy: Now, Dr. Heard says more needs to be done to convince Georgians of color to line up for the coronavirus vaccine. The hospital where Heard works says Black residents are being vaccinated half as often as whites in the city. Heard says convincing people of color to trust the vaccine has to be a grassroots effort.
Derek Heard: It's gonna be person by person, street by street, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, where it becomes like an amoeba and it just kind of spreads out. If I leave a patient room or if I'm doing a telemedicine visit with them and I know that they've gotten the vaccine, I say, “Well, listen, I need you now to go out there and be my microphone. I need you to go out there and tell the people that around you that you've had the vaccine, that you're safe; you're not growing horns out of your head. You're not growing a tail out of your back. You didn't die from the vaccine.” That's how we're going to reach people.
Steve Fennessy: I'm speaking today with Andy Miller, editor and CEO of Georgia Health News, a nonprofit health news organization.
Steve Fennessy: Andy, what are the numbers showing when it comes to the state's outreach efforts to communities of color in the vaccine rollout? Because we've been told that there is some — there's hesitancy there that it might be a harder sell to persuade some communities to take the vaccine.
Andy Miller: Well, it is a harder sell, particularly in communities that have seen historic discrimination based on medical care. You have the Tuskegee experiment in the African-American community that still haunts that community. I think that as you look at the statistics, Georgia is 30% African American, yet blacks are only getting 10% of the vaccine so far. And, you know, we know that there have been efforts in some communities such as Augusta, where there has been special outreach to Black churches. And I think that's one way of getting communities of color more vaccines. Blacks tend to make up a higher percentage of essential workers. And so if you don't — if you haven't started vaccinating essential workers, you're going to miss a lot of Black people.
Newscast: President Biden is moving on to several new fronts tonight in his latest spate of policy actions. They include boosting COVID vaccine supplies and addressing racial equity.
Andy Miller: Plus, Blacks have a lower life expectancy, so they wouldn't be as represented in people 65 and older. So that also might play into this.
Newscast: The racial problem overlaps with the health one, with communities of color hit hardest by the coronavirus and government response. A CNN analysis of 14 states concluded that white Americans are getting COVID vaccines at more than twice the rate of Blacks and Latinos.
Steve Fennessy: So right now, we are still in a state of vaccine shortage because not everybody who wants a vaccine can easily get one. And some states are — are making it very simple. They are just going by age strictly. They're 65 and over. And then when they're done and we have more vaccine, it's 55 and over and then slowly moving it down. And — and people with comorbidities are not even taken into account necessarily.
Andy Miller: Right. And that's one way of doing it. You know, I've got both of my doses of vaccine because I'm 65-plus. But, you know, it raises questions in my mind — and I'm glad, believe me, I'm glad to be vaccinated. But it raises questions in my mind: Do — do I deserve a vaccine before someone who has maybe a health, a serious health condition, who's 55 and is out there in the public much more than I am. And we didn't — I guess all this vaccine decision making, we couldn't, like, go one at a time: “OK, is this person, you know, a 10 on a 10 scale in terms of vulnerability?” So it has to be done through classification — classifications of some time.
Steve Fennessy: At what point will we be looking at a vaccine surplus or abundance or, you know, all I need to do is go to a local clinic or call my doctor and I can get one.
Andy Miller: Well, President Biden says by the end of — the end of May that basically all adults who who will want a vaccine will have it. Now, I'm not sure that that's doable thing, but I think pretty close to it. I think this summer will be the time when — when that will occur. And that will be a great relief. I'll also say that it will be interesting to see who the governor prioritizes next. And this is not a transparent process, which, you know, is problematic.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Georgia Health News editor and CEO Andy Miller, earlier this week, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that starting Monday, people age 55 and over and those with serious health conditions such as asthma, cancer and diabetes will now be eligible for a vaccine.
Brian Kemp: The criteria will open up on March 15th to Georgians over the age of 55 and those with high-risk conditions as defined by the CDC. Adding these additional high-risk Georgians will mean that vaccination will be available to categories that have accounted for 92% of our deaths due to COVID-19 in Georgia. 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. Provided we continue to see increasing vaccine supply, it is our intent to open up vaccination to all of our adults, the first part of next month for everyone currently eligible. I want to urge you to please make your appointment as soon as possible.
Steve Fennessy: And the White House has announced it's launching a mass vaccination site at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Officials say the FEMA facility will be equipped to vaccinate around 6,000 people a day. Andy Slavitt is a senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Task Force. He says that despite progress and rolling out the vaccine across the country, it's critical for Americans to continue social distancing and mask-wearing.
Andy Slavitt: It may seem tempting in the face of all of this progress to try to rush back to normalcy as if the virus is in the rearview mirror. It's not.
Steve Fennessy: For more of GPB's ongoing coverage of the vaccine rollout and the COVID-19 pandemic, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Sean Powers and Jess Mador produce our show. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Khari J. Sampson