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COVID-19 vaccines now arriving at Georgia nursing homes
Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) gave updates on COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the worsening winter outbreak alongside Gov. Brian Kemp (left) at Emory University’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center in Atlanta on Dec. 22, 2020. - photo by Beau Evans

Nursing homes in Georgia began receiving the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, bringing relief to the state’s most vulnerable group of people who have been hit hard by the virus for more than nine months.

About 39,000 doses of the vaccine made by pharmaceutical company Pfizer have shipped to elderly-care facilities as well as CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, which are partnering with the federal government to send doses directly to nursing homes, said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

Staff at nursing homes who serve as “the firewall” protecting elderly residents will likely be vaccinated first, Toomey said during a news conference at Pruitt Health’s elderly-term care facility in Gainesville.

She noted nursing-home residents account for 37% of Georgia’s deaths stemming from COVID-19, despite making up just 5% of the state’s overall positive cases.

“We hope with these vaccines we will begin to change those statistics and save lives,” Toomey said.

Toomey also announced the state has set up a new vaccine-focused hotline for Georgians to ask questions about when they will get the vaccine, what the difference is between the two brands and how the vaccines are safe. The hotline number is 1-888-357-0169.

So far, Georgia has been allocated 268,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 234,000 doses of a vaccine produced by pharmaceutical company Moderna. Health-care workers have been first in line to receive the vaccines starting earlier this month. More than 26,000 vaccines have been given as of Sunday.

Gov. Brian Kemp noted more than 95% of all elderly-care facilities in Georgia have signed up with CVS and Walgreens for the direct-distribution program, which will cut out an extra step of routing vaccines through state officials.

“We are eager to see the vaccine make its way quickly and safely to our most vulnerable and to those brave Georgians who are giving them world-class care,” Kemp said Monday in Gainesville.

The first vaccine shipments come as Georgia continues seeing COVID-19 positive cases and hospitalizations spike amid the winter holiday season. Case rates have now shot far above the prior transmission peak seen in July with around 5,000 new positive cases daily in recent days.

Kemp said 60 emergency hospital beds at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta should be ready for use by the end of this week. The state should have an 80-day stockpile of protective gear on hand by the end of this month, he added.

The governor urged Georgians to keep distancing, wash hands and limit gatherings ahead of upcoming New Year’s celebrations, especially people ages 18 to 29, who have seen the highest transmission rates in recent weeks and risk spreading the virus to more vulnerable family members.

“I’m encouraging everyone to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Kemp said.

Around 550,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. As of Sunday, the virus had killed 9,714 Georgians.