ATLANTA — Georgia’s teachers and school staff are now on the list of people who can receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting next month.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday he is expanding the list of eligible individuals who can start receiving vaccine doses to protect against coronavirus.
The new expansion of eligibility begins March 8.
Along with teachers and school staff, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their caregivers — a group that is in the top categories most at risk of dying if they contract the virus are now eligible. Parents of children with "complex medical conditions” have also been added to the list.
State officials estimate the expansion will add about 1 million Georgians to the list of people eligible for vaccinations.
The change in presidential administration has lead to a 70% increase in vaccine supply being sent to the state from the federal government, Kemp said. The increase prompted state officials to feel “confident” enough to expand current criteria.
Throughout the pandemic, Kemp has remained steadfast in his opinion that children should be physically in schools.
"I believe it is vitally important for more Georgians to return to normal, and for too many parents, this is simply impossible to do while your child is at home learning through a screen,” Kemp said Thursday. “Virtual schooling is leaving too many children behind and parents are literally at wit’s end.”
Georgia’s pre-K, K-12 public and private school faculty and Department of Early Care and Learning educators can make an appointment to get a vaccine starting next month. College educators and staff are not among the new expansion.
"We cannot delay full, in-person learning any longer,” Kemp said. "Our children cannot afford to wait until fall. The costs are simply too high."
For the days leading up to the new expansion, schools will need to work with the Department of Education and Department of Public Health to coordinate a vaccination strategy.
The Republican governor has held off increasing the number of individuals who are eligible, citing the limited number of doses coming to the state from the federal government. But the decision was met with criticism that teachers and individuals with medical conditions that put them at higher risk weren’t moved forward in line.
More than two months after the first vaccine was administered, about 1.2 million Peach State residents have received the vaccine — which is more than half of those eligible in the first phase of distribution.
Kemp said the state would not be expanding eligibility any further in the first phase of vaccine distribution but will reconsider in March if it's possible to move forward with vaccinating more populations.
Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said the state is seeing “significant improvements” in case, hospitalization and testing metrics.
Toomey added the number of cases in long-term care facilities — which have been devastated by spread of the virus from within — have been declining.
"We are seeing a decline in the number of outbreaks and the number of cases,” she said. “That change clearly reflects the fact that we prioritize those facilities as vaccination sites.”
The governor was careful to remind Georgians, however, that while vaccine supply is increasing and more Georgians are eligible, it will be a long time before all of Georgia is vaccinated.
"There will be more demand for the vaccine than the state has supply,” he said. "With the expanded criteria we are announcing today, I continue to ask Georgians for their patience."
The state’s new mass vaccination sites have vaccinated 11,000 people in the first three days of operating. Due to large turnout, the sites are going back to appointment-only vaccinations.