Credit: Grant Blankenship
The Grind To Immunize Georgia As COVID Vaccinations Stall
Even after losing three family members to COVID-19, Tisa Horton said she was afraid to get vaccinated. But she talked herself into it.
“Well, I have a 17-year-old daughter, 30-year-old son, my husband and family members that I want to make sure I stay around to enjoy life with,” she said.
Giving people the tools they need to stay around and enjoy life was the point of the health and fitness night in Fort Valley which Horton organized in her role as the chair of the Georgia Peach Festival recently.
Some of those tools: a big, cartoon wrapped bus from a toothpaste company meant to entice kids into brushing. A health clinic to check pulse and heart rate. Plus some exercise teams and zumba groups on hand to get people moving.
People were having fun. That was on purpose, because tucked by the toothpaste bus was a two-person team from a disaster aid group called CORE, invited by Horton, set up to vaccinate against COVID-19.
“We do have a gap and we need to work together to fill that gap,” Horton said. “Use all the resources that we have and that we do know of to bring it together, to make sure that we take it to the people.”
Now six months into vaccinating against COVID-19, it is events like this — strategically placed, no appointment needed and arranged with community partners — that have come to characterize the vaccination battle in Georgia. The mass vaccination sites have literally folded up their tents.
Meanwhile the state is only just over halfway to the goal set by President Joe Biden of getting just a first dose of a COVID vaccine to 70% of the people by July 4.
But what matters now, as the more contagious Delta variant of the virus becomes dominant, is getting people fully vaccinated. At the current pace, the path for Georgia to fully vaccinate even a simple majority of residents could stretch into a third pandemic year.
The Georgia Department of Public Health has handed the reins of the state’s grassroots, mobile vaccination effort to CORE, the disaster aid group that worked with Tisa Horton in Fort Valley.
CORE is also vaccinating in California, where the group is based, and in the extremely successful vaccination effort in the Navajo Nation.
Margaret Herro heads up CORE’s Georgia vaccination program. She said as hard as her new job is, it may be easier than her last job trying to reconcile Tamil, Buddhist and Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.
“There's really not a good metric to measure that,” Herro said. “Whereas this health project is so easy to figure out. ‘Did we make it or not make it?’”
Herro said once DPH and CORE came to an agreement, some health districts were quick to ask for help.
“The state introduced us to all of the health districts,” Herro said. Some were excited right out of the gate.
“Waycross right away said, ‘Hey, we want you to come down here and help us,’” she said.
Other health districts have not been so eager for the aid.
“They haven't even contacted us and I don't think they will,” Herro said.
For instance, Northwest Georgia, where vaccination rates are among the lowest in the state, remains basically untouched by CORE clinics. More successful have been events targeted to Black and Latino communities in metro Atlanta. CORE also has a consistent presence in South Georgia.
Herro said each vaccination day can take weeks to plan. They mean finding local stakeholders and getting those stakeholders to work their connections before the first vial of vaccine is thawed out.
Success can mean as few as 50 new doses. Even then, Herros said they can only stick with a successful site for so long.
“You can go just like maybe four times and we've got to find a new site,” she said. “So we have to continually find new people, new sites. It's a lot of work now.”
Georgia is only administering around 23,000 vaccine doses a day now. At that rate, it could be next year before Georgia vaccinates its way to community immunity from COVID-19..
The state enjoyed a little bump when the Pfizer vaccine was given emergency use authorization for kids between 12 and 15 years old. That boost has ended with that cohort stalled at about 14% fully vaccinated.
The slowdown comes when the new, highly communicable Delta variant has been found in the state.
Gov. Brian Kemp toured a CORE site recently. Afterward, he was asked about the extremely slow pace of vaccination and the Delta variant. He pointed to other positive markers — drops in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — but said his staff had also had very early talks about another summer spike thanks to the Delta variant.
“Who do we need to have in the room to kind of go back and think about what we’ve been through?” Kemp said in describing the meeting. “What worked really good? What maybe didn’t? What are our assets? Do we have any liabilities we need to identify?”
One early but troubling signal in the data: Even as cases and hospitalizations have dropped, deaths from COVID-19 have begun to slowly tick up in Georgia. About 33 people a day are still dying from the disease in the state.
Back at the Georgia Peach Festival, Sheila Green found the CORE vaccination tent.
“Y’all have the Moderna?” she asked the workers.
When they said yes, that was all Green needed to get her 19-year-old son Samuel on the phone. She said he’d been dragging his heels on getting vaccinated.
“You get ready and I’ll come get you in about 30 minutes,” she told him.
As far as Green was concerned, her son’s excuses ran out.
“He’s coming. He’s coming!” Green exclaimed with a giggle and a little shimmy.
One more vaccination in the books.