ATLANTA — A frustrated Dr. Kathleen Toomey said Thursday it is “unacceptable” that in some parts of the state, COVID-19 vaccines are sitting unused.
In rural areas, the Georgia Department of Public Health commissioner said, health care workers have been extremely reluctant to take the recently approved coronavirus vaccines while in metro areas, wait lists to be vaccinated are long.
“Sadly, we’re not getting the kind of uptake of the vaccine by health care workers all over the state. By contrast, here in metro-Atlanta, there’s a waiting list of hundreds of health care workers waiting to get vaccinated,” Toomey said. "But in many parts of rural Georgia — both in the North and South — there’s vaccine available but it’s literally sitting in freezers. That’s unacceptable. We have lives to save."
Gov. Brian Kemp added the state may have to shift its strategy from strictly following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on distribution to offset the imbalance.
“We have more people that want to get vaccinated in metro areas than we have vaccine,” the governor said. “It’s completely the reverse to that in parts of rural Georgia."
The contrast depicts a challenge health officials knew they would have to face: building public trust in the vaccines that were developed quickly while misinformation about them spread like wildfire. But officials warn that a majority of Georgians have to be vaccinated for it to stop community spread across the state.
Kemp and Toomey both pledged to take the COVID-19 vaccine in an effort to boost public confidence. Toomey received her vaccination earlier this month.
"I was relieved when the vaccine became available here in Georgia to end this pandemic here,” Toomey said. "But that's only going to happen if at least 80% of Georgians are willing to take that vaccine because that's how many people are required within a given area to have what's called herd immunity or sufficient immunity that can stop ongoing community spread. At a time when we're seeing the highest community spread we've ever had during this pandemic, I think it's even more important to recognize that this is lifesaving.”
State health officials have made the call to open vaccine eligibility to more Georgians.
Kemp and the Georgia Department of Public Health announced late Wednesday the state is moving forward in the vaccine distribution plan. The next phase gives the go-ahead for adults age 65 and older, law-enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders to begin being vaccinated.
Health care workers and nursing home residents have already begun being vaccinated with doses of the FDA-approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. As of Wednesday, the state has been allocated more than half-a-million doses of both of the vaccines and distributed more than 375,000 to participating medical providers.
More than 61,000 vaccines have already been administered to Georgians across the state.
But the positive news of the vaccine comes at a time when the virus is skyrocketing to levels the country and state have not seen since the summer. According to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, nearly 90% of the state’s intensive care beds are in use and more than 86% of general inpatient beds filled.
Kemp called the rising hospitalizations “alarming” and decided to reopen the makeshift medical center at the Georgia World Congress Center that provides an additional 60 beds to the metro area.
On New Year's Eve day, Kemp made a plea to Georgians to celebrate the holiday safely.
"I've been clear with the people of Georgia this week, the virus is still here, and presents as big a threat as ever,” he said. "We need all Georgians to continue to act responsibly in the best interest of their loved ones and fellow citizens to limit the spread over the holiday weekend. ... Please consider the risk of going out for New Year's tonight or during the weekend."