ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia will expand COVID-19 vaccine criteria starting Monday to everyone 55 and older, plus younger adults who are overweight or have serious health conditions, making more than two-thirds of Georgians who are 16 and older eligible for vaccination.
Gov. Brian Kemp made the announcement Wednesday as Georgia continued to post worst-in-the nation vaccination rates, raising questions about the effectiveness of the state's efforts to put shots in arms.
“We will continue to encourage all eligible Georgians not to wait to get their dose,” the Republican governor said. “This vaccine, as we have said many times, is safe, is effective, and it’s our ticket back to normal.”
Georgia has only given 17.5% of its overall population at least one dose, the worst in the nation, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same data show Georgia has administered the lowest share of doses delivered among states, with more than one-third of doses still awaiting injection.
Georgia disputes that second number, saying it’s given 74% of doses shipped. But even the state’s numbers show it has more than 850,000 doses on hand. At the rate shots were given in Georgia last week according to state numbers, that’s more than three weeks of supply.
“We're failing. That's where we are," said Amber Schmidtke, an epidemiologist who writes a daily report about COVID-19 in Georgia. “We have so much vaccine and we aren't getting it out there.”
Why that is isn't exactly clear. Kemp repeated Wednesday that he questions those numbers, saying vaccine that has shipped has not necessarily arrived in Georgia, and saying that some health care providers are still holding back doses to give booster shots even though they have been instructed not to.
“I really feel like, with the expanded criteria, with our teachers getting vaccinated now, we’re going to be able to continue to get where we need to be,” Kemp said.
Demand is still clearly exceeding supply in metro Atlanta, but that's not true in the rest of the state. For example, Vaccinespotter.com, which searches for appointments at some chain pharmacies, shows no open appointments in the Atlanta and Columbus areas, but shows plenty of appointments in Savannah and across more rural areas of south Georgia. Availability is mixed in Macon and Augusta, where there have been complaints about vaccine-seeking metro Atlanta residents driving in.
Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Chris Stallings said the state is expanding the supply of doses at a mass vaccine site in Hapeville from 2,200 doses a day to 4,000 a day in recognition of strong Atlanta-area demand.
“Obviously our demand continues to be high here,” Kemp said. “It's our intention to continue to work on those issues to make sure we have the available supply as we get it, where the demand is. And we know that's here, and that's where we're targeting.”
Right now, people eligible in Georgia include those 65 and older, teachers, emergency workers, medical workers, employees and residents of long-term care facilities, intellectually disabled adults and caregivers of some children with medical conditions.
Adults younger than 55 who will qualify include those who have asthma, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease or kidney disease. Those who are overweight and obese will also qualify. With roughly a third of all Georgians counted as obese, that alone is a huge expansion.
The 57-year-old Kemp said he would get vaccinated, saying he would take the Johnson & Johnson shot because he wants to demonstrate his faith in its effectiveness and wants to be “one and done.”
The expansion will come on the same day the state opens new mass vaccination sites in Columbus, Emerson, Sandersville, Savannah and Valdosta, joining sites the state is already running in Albany, Clarkesville, Hapeville and Macon. There's also a federal site planned at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta and a number of sites being run by local health authorities.
Officials with Kemp's office say that, overall, another 3.3 million people will eligible, which means more than 6 million Georgians overall can now seek shots. Georgia has about 8.4 million residents 16 and older, the group that will ultimately be eligible for vaccines until health officials decide whether it can be used in children younger than 16.
Kemp said people who will be eligible for vaccination starting Monday will include groups that have accounted for more than 92% of Georgia's more than 17,000 COVID-19 deaths. Kemp said if vaccine supplies keep increasing, he wants to soon make them available to everyone 16 and older. He indicated during the news conference, though, that there might be an intermediate stage aimed at front-line workers like grocery store clerks and poultry processes.
“It is our intent to open up vaccination for all adults early next month,” Kemp said.