By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia could have “several hundred thousand doses” of COVID-19 vaccines in the next week or so for distribution to health-care workers and elderly care facilities, according to the state’s top public-health official.
Those doses will roll out immediately once approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month but will not be enough to cover all of Georgia’s hospital workers and nursing-home staff and residents, said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health.
More rounds of the vaccine will arrive depending on how fast pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna produce it, as well as how the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed distribution program plans to divvy out doses, Toomey said at a news conference Tuesday.
“We’ll be able to get this throughout the state,” Toomey said. “I’m very confident of that.”
Officials in several state agencies have been working for months on plans to transport the vaccine throughout Georgia, decide who should have first dibs in the early wave of limited doses and coordinate with local pharmacies and health-care providers that will administer the shots.
Once hospitals and nursing homes get the vaccine, workers in key sectors like first responders and energy companies, plus older Georgians with health issues, will be next in line for doses. The general public should have access by summer, Toomey said.
Given the long wait for widespread immunization, Gov. Brian Kemp said it’s essential people in Georgia do not stop social distancing and wearing masks even as the vaccine begins to arrive in limited batches.
“Our first shipments will not be anywhere close enough for anyone in our state to stop following the same public-health guidance that we’ve had in place for many months,” Kemp said. “We cannot give up now. We all must do our part so that the sacrifices that everyone has made will not be done in vain.”
Tuesday’s vaccine update came as Georgia continues to see increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during the winter holiday season, as more people head indoors for colder weather and face temptation to gather without masks for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Nearly 500,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 so far and more than 9,000 Georgians have died of the virus.
Kemp signaled he is still reluctant to impose tougher measures like smaller crowd-size restrictions or business shutdowns for the time being, saying that Georgia is “faring much better” than many other states with more severe outbreaks.
“I would urge Georgians that if there’s an activity that involves being around a lot of people that you don’t have to do, don’t do that,” Kemp said. “I feel like we’re in a good spot … but it’s going to be our citizens that flatten the curve.”
Once the vaccine arrives, Toomey said county health departments working with local providers will pick the first recipients. Distribution will happen statewide, even to isolated rural areas, she said. Everyone except children will eventually have access to the vaccine free of charge.
Besides those logistics, the biggest challenge facing Georgia will be for state officials and health experts to cut through public skepticism over the vaccine’s safety and make sure enough people are immunized to halt COVID-19’s spread.
Toomey assured the vaccine will be safe and highly effective based on data from clinical trials Pfizer and Moderna released last month.
“I can say with great enthusiasm: I can’t wait to get vaccinated,” Toomey said. “I’m so looking forward to that opportunity, and I hope we can convey that same desire to people throughout Georgia.”
“We feel very confident that these vaccines will work, are safe and are important to ensure the safety of all Georgians at this time.”