Georgia Today: Georgia Vaccinations Sputter as COVID Variant Gains Ground
In most Georgia counties, COVID-19 vaccination rates have stalled. And with infections from the so-called Delta variant rapidly rising across the United States, public health experts worry the state could again see surges in serious virus cases. What’s behind the low vaccination numbers? Host Steve Fennessy and GPB Macon Reporter and Editor Grant Blankenship try to answer that question on the latest episode of the Georgia Today podcast.
Steve Fennessy: The Biden administration has set a target for vaccinating at least 70% of Americans at least once by July 4th. With just days to go before that deadline, Georgia's vaccination rollout has been sluggish. As of late June, barely one out of three Georgians had been vaccinated and rates are even lower for Georgians of color. Public health officials say that without urgent action the state is at increased risk for future surges of COVID-19, especially due to the highly contagious Delta variant. Vice President Kamala Harris came to Georgia last month to urge holdouts to get vaccinated.
Kamala Harris: "We together have the power to end this pandemic. We know what the numbers tell us. We've got to get those numbers up."
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. For this episode of Georgia Today, I'm joined by Grant Blankenship from Georgia Public Broadcasting's Macon bureau. Grant's been following the state's COVID-19 vaccination campaign. So, Grant, we're now six months into the most ambitious vaccination campaign that America has seen, probably since the campaign to eradicate polio back in the 1950s. What is it about Georgia specifically that is making for such a sluggish rollout of the vaccination campaign?
Grant Blankenship: If you look at the electoral map from the 2020 presidential election, counties that went majority Republican tend to be less vaccinated than counties that went majority Democrat. That's a tight correlation that really works its way out across the country. It's not just Georgia. There's also mistrust on the part of lots of people of color of the medical establishment.
[News tape] Andre Felder Jr.: "I would just need them to prove it to me that it's 100% effective."
[News tape] 11Alive: Andre Felder Jr. was in the audience for Harris, unvaccinated and still skeptical.
[News tape] Andre Felder Jr.: "Also in my community, in the Black community growing up, I was always taught vaccinations and medicine isn't always the best for us. The government doesn't usually do the best things for us, per se."
[News tape] 11Alive: Felder told me he does eventually expect to get the vaccine. But as of now, he's among the 58% of Georgians eligible for the vaccine who haven't gotten it yet.
Grant Blankenship: And so there's a lot of wait and see on the part of people around the state, when statistically we know that getting COVID is way more dangerous than being vaccinated against it, even given what we know about side effects of the vaccines.
Steve Fennessy: And now we're starting to come up against an especially virulent variant of coronavirus: the Delta variant, highly transmissible.
[News tape] WTOC: The CDC says about 20% of the new cases come from the Delta variant nationwide, Georgia with 20 active cases. South Carolina has four.
Steve Fennessy: And the sense of urgency then is even more acute, or at least it should be in terms of getting people vaccinated, because the vaccine does provide protection against the variant as well. Vice President Kamala Harris came to Georgia to drum up interest in the vaccination campaign. That same week, Gov. Kemp announced that they were going to roll out, I think, 370 or so mobile units around the state in advance of the July 4th deadline. But at the same time, he declined an allotment of something like three million doses of vaccine. So what's going on there?
Grant Blankenship: Letting demand lead supply really is the situation all the states are in at this point. And if there's no demonstrated demand for the vaccine, then, yeah, the feds are going to take it elsewhere. They're going to they're going to ship it where there is demand.
Steve Fennessy: There's a shelf life to these vaccines. Saying you'll take it, but then don't use it, then they can just go to waste.
Grant Blankenship: You can only store for so long before it's no good anymore. And if you've got somewhere where it's flying off the shelves, send it there.
Steve Fennessy: And if you compare its efforts to roll out the vaccination campaign in Georgia and compare it to other states, how involved is the state department of health?
Grant Blankenship: Well, so there's two different sort of streams of vaccine delivery to providers in the state. One of those is purely federal. So that's your pharmacies, doctor's offices. Those are the places that the state Department of Public Health really doesn't have any say over mass vaccination sites. Those were federally supplied and not supplied by the state allocations. State public health has, some say, over how much vaccine your local health department is going to get.
Steve Fennessy: We're looking at states around the country and the rate of vaccination has varied and fluctuated pretty wildly, if you compare some states to others.
[News tape] NBC News: Experts call it a tale of two COVID nations. In much of the Northeast and West, where vaccination rates are higher, cases are falling. But in much of the South, where vaccinations are at their lowest, cases are once again surging. In Missouri, they're up 72%.
Steve Fennessy: There are some states that have pretty high vaccination rate now, and those, of course, have red counties, you know, they have residents of color. What is it about states within the South that seems to engender an especially stubborn type of resistance to getting the vaccine?
Grant Blankenship: There's access. There's politics — on either ends of the southern political spectrum, either very liberal or very conservative. So in northwest Georgia, those deeply red counties just aren't digging into that supply. I think you have massive distrust today of the political establishment. At the pace that Georgia is moving, it could be months, maybe even stretching into the third year of the pandemic before Georgia hits that goal.
[News tape] 11Alive: The politics can be a distraction, says CDC director Rochelle Walensky.
Rochelle Walensky: "But I would say that the reason to get vaccinated is a very individual decision, not a political decision. And so that's really what we're trying to do and is bring that decision to individual people."
[News tape] 11Alive: The CDC says nationwide, 65% of those eligible have had at least one vaccine. But in Georgia, that rate is only 42%. State data shows only two Georgia counties, Fayette and Oconee, have vaccination rates exceeding 50%.
Steve Fennessy: And I think it's important to put this in context, because this this is such a fast-moving thing. I mean, we've only had vaccines for about six months, and that's not a long time. But when we first started launching the vaccination campaign in Georgia, they were opening up Mercedes-Benz because they imagined that there would be thousands of people flocking to get a vaccine and they would need these huge-capacity events to give shots to all of them. Well, how did those pan out?
Grant Blankenship: Mercedes-Benz, I think, was a success. But some of the others around the state, particularly in Albany. You see, Albany was this early hot spot. So when the state dropped a mass vaccination site in Albany, it blew my mind where people just were not coming out to that mass vaccination site.
[News tape] CNN: Getting the word out about a pop-up vaccination site nearby is one thing. Dispelling suspicions is another. In this small rural city three hours southwest of Atlanta, nearly three-quarters of the population is African American, many living in poor and underserved communities.
[News tape] Dr. Derek Heard: "We know that years ago there were horrible experiments that were done on the African American community. So African Americans have had a very well-founded distrust of the medical community."
Grant Blankenship: I think the real challenge in this is, it's the assumption that just because it's there, people are going to want it. The piece that's sort of been missing in this is really giving people the knowledge they need to understand why they need it so that they show up and get vaccinated. In talking to Margaret Herro — she's the leader of the Georgia mobile vaccination effort on the part of CORE, this disaster aid group based in California that DPH is collaborating with. They worked hand in hand with the Navajo Nation during their COVID vaccination effort, which is one of the most successful COVID vaccination efforts in the country. They've hit and surpassed President Biden's goal. And so now DPH has looked at CORE and said, “Y'all are very, very good at logistics and finding the most vulnerable pockets of the community and going there to do these vaccinations.” And so that's now CORE's job. They are the specialists for the state at this point. Herro says once DPH and CORE came to an agreement, some health districts were quick to ask for help.
Margaret Herro: "Waycross right away said, 'Hey, we want you to come down here and help us.' Some of the local DPH units were the first to reach out."
Grant Blankenship: Since then, CORE has had a steady presence in rural south Georgia, but other health districts and communities have not been so eager.
Margaret Herro: "They haven't even contacted us and I don't think they will."
Grant Blankenship: For instance, CORE has almost no footprint in northwest Georgia despite low vaccination rates there. The same is true around Augusta. They're working more in southwest Georgia in urban areas where there's high Latino and Black population because we know about the disparate impact of COVID and Latino and black communities.
[News tape] CNN: Phoebe Health is the largest vaccinator in Dougherty County, which includes Albany. Hospital health officials say white people are being vaccinated at more than twice the rate of Black residents. Dr. Heard says a lack of access and trust both play a role.
[News tape] Dr. Derek Heard: COVID-19 is still ravaging our community. We're bearing the brunt of this disease.
Steve Fennessy: Stay with us. Next on Georgia Today: what it might take to persuade unvaccinated Georgians to get their shots. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. Grant Blankenship, a reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting's Macon bureau, has reported extensively on Georgia's vaccination campaign. He joins me now. As these vaccination campaigns have unfurled in states across the country, different governors have tried different things to get people vaccinated. I know in Ohio they have lotteries and in California they have lotteries. Oftentimes, the governor has definitely used the bully pulpit to get out there. What has Gov. Kemp been doing to sort of sell Georgians on the necessity to get vaccinated?
Grant Blankenship: Until about mid-June, it had been weeks and weeks since we heard the governor on this issue at all. Kemp toured a CORE site at the Latin American Association.
[News tape] CNN: For the 900,000 confirmed cases in our state. And it comes as Gov. Brian Kemp gets a firsthand look at our state's vaccination effort. He's making a special push to get shots in the arms of our Latino community. Right now, only 36% of Georgians are fully vaccinated. Our state ranks in the bottom seven in vaccination rates.
Grant Blankenship: But before that press conference, it had been quite some time since we'd heard anything about vaccinations from the governor. So he's definitely not out here every day spreading the message.
Steve Fennessy: Is this strange? Because in the first months of the pandemic, you know, we saw Gov. Kemp, we saw Kathleen Toomey, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Health. You know, they were out at the capitol in front of the cameras, you know, every week or so, if not more, giving updates. And then now we have this vaccine, which is the thing that will end the pandemic. And you don't see them anywhere near as much as you did then.
Grant Blankenship: I don't know if I can draw a causal link here, but at the same time, our vaccination rates, not only are they lagging, like, they've essentially stalled out in this period when we're not hearing anything from the state on the regular. Well, when you do ask him about it, he doesn't hesitate to agree with you that people should partake.
[News tape] CBS46: In an attempt to boost vaccination rates. Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey said they are prepared to handle any outbreak, especially with growing concerns of the new highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.
Gov. Brian Kemp: "Literally one dose at the time now. And that is really the approach that it's going to take, I think, for the the rest of the pandemic."
Grant Blankenship: It's difficult to look at how this is being tackled and not remember that there's an election next year that the governor is trying very, very hard to get back in the good graces of some sort of dyed-in-the-wool, very conservative folks who are not very happy with him about the way the election went down last year. And a lot of those folks are also very much of the “I have a freedom to either be vaccinated or not be vaccinated.”
Steve Fennessy: It does seem that the Delta variant being much more highly transmissible than the coronavirus that we first encountered over a year ago is such that it's going to seed itself in communities where there is not a deep reservoir of vaccinated people.
Grant Blankenship: I mean, that's definitely the fear, that by not vaccinating any more quickly that we're just setting ourselves up for trouble with the Delta variant.
[News tape] CNN: The Delta variant, the same variant blamed for the catastrophic surge of COVID cases and deaths in India, is quickly becoming more prominent in the U.S. What's more, medical experts say just about all those hospitalized share something in common. What percentage do you think it is of people you have now who are unvaccinated?
[News tape] Dr. Robin L. Trotman: "It's nearly 100% of the people hospitalized with COVID pneumonia are unvaccinated."
Grant Blankenship: But something else to consider. Joshua White at Georgia Tech has a tool that lets you play around with various levels of this community infection plus vaccination model to get an idea of of where we are in Georgia in terms of community immunity, based on how many people have been sick in the state in the past, plus our vaccination rate, we're between we're above 50% community immunity to the virus. So that being said, there's some suggestion that the Delta variant makes younger people sicker.
[News tape] CNN: In Arkansas, where only a third of eligible people have been fully vaccinated, the number of COVID patients in ICUs has more than doubled in the last few months — the sickest people now in their 20s and 30s. “Now it’s young, healthy individuals who are coming in on mechanical ventilation, needing heart lung bypass to stay alive.”
Steve Fennessy: You know, when I'm out and about now, it feels like the before times, you know, occasionally you'll see some masks in shops and such and in restaurants. But for the most part, I mean, people have resumed what appears to be their normal life. And — and yet we have this sort of specter of this new variant that's kind of like on the horizon. And so, to what degree are, you know, local public health officials, local physicians, local emergency room doctors — how concerned are they about what might be coming? Because it does feel a little bit like, I don't know, like this ain't over yet.
Grant Blankenship: You know, I've spoken to Amber Schmidtke, who used to work at the CDC. She's very worried about the Delta variant causing a spike later in the summer. Carlos Del Rio from Emory told me the same. And you have to remember, we did have a spike last summer. Following winter was the worst we've seen of it. We seemed to have a tough time when it got hot enough here that people were driven back indoors. But, you know, as we get deeper into the into the dog days, you know, I worry that that's when the stuff is going to spread around.
Steve Fennessy: We have the vaccine hesitant and then we have the vaccine opposers, you know, and trying to figure out what's the best way that's been found to sort of bring the hesitant around to getting vaccinated, knowing that those who are sort of opposed for whatever reason, political, religious, whatever, scientific, whatever their reason is, those are the ones that we can't waste our time on. But there are those who are convertible. How do we identify them and sort of how do we bring them around?
Grant Blankenship: People are trying to answer that question as we're trying to implement the answer. That's really the problem. And yet having that answer is so vitally important. That being said, the commonsense approach that you'll hear a lot of the time is it's important to find trusted members of the community, people that are listened to. You know, often that'll be preachers, pastors, politicians. When I've talked to people, it's not so much hesitancy. It's — it's just access. There's more of that I've encountered than planting your feet and saying there's no way I'm ever going to do it. Let's take the demographic of kids between 12 and 15, right? So lots of people were very, very excited. When you can get your middle-school kid vaccinated in Georgia, that has stalled out at about 14% of that demographic that has been vaccinated. And if you look at the map of things, it's two or three counties away to find the vaccine that their kids can use.
Steve Fennessy: And to specify, there's just one of the three vaccines that have so far been given emergency youth authorization.
Grant Blankenship: Exactly. That's the Pfizer vaccine. And it's also the one that is hardest to store. So DPH will tell you, it's not been given to a lot of rural health districts because they didn't have the physical infrastructure, the freezers, like the deep freeze to keep the stuff on hand.
[News tape] ABC7: The lifesaving vials must be kept at minus 94 degrees. Once out of the shipping containers, within 90 seconds, the vaccine needs to be moved into special freezers or put into a standard refrigerator to thaw where it can stay for up to five days.
Steve Fennessy: This is the most acute public health emergency in 100 years.
[News tape] CBS News: Tonight, the U.S. is about to hit a once unimaginable milestone in the COVID pandemic: 600,000 deaths. With nearly 600,000 deaths, there's more COVID trouble ahead. The Delta variant is now taking hold in the U.S. and doubling every two weeks. It's the most contagious variant yet, even infecting those who are partially vaccinated.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb: "It's probably going to become the dominant strain here in the United States. I think the risk is really to the fall, that this could spike a new epidemic."
Steve Fennessy: It would just seem that every single political elected official would be out on the hustings singing the necessity for this miracle vaccine, which can keep this at bay. There have been more than 20,000 Georgians who have died of COVID. That's not an insignificant number.
Grant Blankenship: It is a huge number and also placed it in the context of other types of death that we're exercised about. Here in Macon, where I live, we've had 60, roughly 60 gun homicides over the course of the pandemic, an astronomical number for us. We're going to have community meetings about it. We're going to talk about it as a community. How are we going to stop this stuff? We're not doing that about COVID. And those are the things that make me scratch my head. We know exactly what we need to do to stop it, and we're just not doing it.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB's Grant Blankenship. This week, Gov. Brian Kemp asked lawmakers to weigh in on where to spend nearly 5 billion dollars in federal coronavirus relief aid. The funds are aimed at helping government agencies, nonprofits and businesses recoup some of their pandemic expenses. Kemp is expected to announce the funding allocations this fall. For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador produced this episode. Georgia Today’s engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. See you next week.