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Demand overwhelming as Public Health, NGHS begin administering vaccines
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Northeast Georgia Physician's Group nurse Pam Williams gives a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, to Mary Henriques during the Northeast Georgia Health System's first vaccine clinic for those 65 and older. - photo by Scott Rogers

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Elizabeth Lundy, of South Hall, said she feels like she’s “constantly obsessed” with trying to get her dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, always on her laptop checking and rechecking since the announcement that those 65 and older were eligible.

She moved to the area roughly six months ago with the intent to retire after 43 years in Texas.

Her calls to the Department of Public Health go nowhere, and she’s been clicking through every day of the online appointment calendars with no luck.

No dice for Lundy on the Northeast Georgia Health System appointment portal either.

It’s now at the point where she has looked at what options are available in Florida.

“It’s only five and a half hours down there from where I live,” Lundy said. “I figured, if I can’t get it here, maybe I can get it there. I’m just hoping I can get it soon.”

Lundy said she has a daughter in Florida that she visits roughly once a month since getting to Hall County, spending five to 10 days at a time so she can visit her grandchildren.

NGHS officials said appointments for the seven clinics announced Saturday, Jan. 9, were filled in roughly an hour after the announcement. 

NGHS administered 350 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Jan. 11, on the first day of vaccinations for people ages 65 and older.

The majority of the 350 doses given Monday went to those ages 65 and up, though some went to the seniors’ caregivers.

“Now we’re just encouraging people to stay calm while we work to find the staff and locations to schedule more opportunities,” NGHS spokesman Sean Couch said.

Couch said they hope to distribute at least 3,150 doses through these first seven clinics.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 12, NGHS has received more than 16,000 doses and have used 4,500 of those doses to vaccinate part of its 10,000-employee workforce.

“We’re not just sitting on the unused doses, though,” NGHS director of pharmacy services Melissa Frank said in a statement. “We continue to vaccinate our workforce with first and second doses – as they work around challenges with breaking away from record numbers of patients, timing doses on the day before an off-day, and driving to Gainesville or Braselton from locations across the region. We’re also balancing staffing challenges and our vaccine supply to plan more community clinics as soon as possible.”

Northeast Georgia Physicians Group Vice President of Operations Bobby Norris said the planning for the first seven clinics started New Year’s Eve after Gov. Brian Kemp announced his plan for the elderly vaccination rollout.

“Our philosophy is to roll forward with vaccinating as many of our healthcare workers and community members as quickly as possible,” Norris said in a statement. “We’re proud to be among the first health systems in the state to offer vaccines to community members 65 and older, and look forward to expanding access as we enter other phases of the rollout plan outlined by (Department of Public Health).”

The continuing hurdles for NGHS’ vaccine rollout are having qualified staff to administer the doses while not outpacing the supply, Norris said.

“We’re not holding any vaccines back as second doses at this point, and we’re counting on the federal government to continue feeding a steady supply as we demonstrate that we’re using it,” Norris said.

Monday also marked the first day for law enforcement to receive their vaccinations. Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth said 99 members of the department, both certified deputies and civilian employees, were set to receive a dose between Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 12.

“Since the vaccine was made available to agency employees, no decision was required as to who would go first,” Booth wrote in an email.

Gainesville Police Cpl. Jessica Van said the agency was offered “enough vaccines for all of our sworn personnel to acquire one should they decide to” get it.

Booth and Van said the vaccine is not mandatory for either department.

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Northeast Georgia Physician's Group nurse Pam Williams, left prepares to give a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, to Mary Henriques during the Northeast Georgia Health System's first vaccine clinic for those 65 and older. - photo by Scott Rogers
District 2 Public Health phone, website ‘overwhelmed’ with demand

District 2 Public Health said its phone lines, call center and website are “overwhelmed and (unable) to handle the demand” for the vaccine.

“We ask that everyone be patient,” said District 2 Public Health spokesman Dave Palmer in an email. “We understand that everyone is anxious, but everyone who wants the vaccine will be given the opportunity to get vaccinated. Currently, there is a limited supply of vaccine available at a small number of providers. But, as more vaccine is shipped to additional enrolled providers, access to appointments will improve over the days and weeks ahead.”

The COVID call center number, 1-888-426-5073, gave callers an error message Tuesday, Jan. 12.

The District 2 website was unreachable “due to maintenance downtime or capacity problems.” 

District 2 spokesman Dave Palmer did not provide answers Tuesday to questions posed by The Times regarding the demand seen by the office and about the phone error message.

Public health officials are reminding people that the vaccines require two doses, either three weeks apart for the Pfizer version or four weeks apart for the Moderna version.

“We are partnering with other health care providers, colleges and universities to utilize nursing students, paramedics, and other health care professionals to help vaccinate residents,” Palmer said. “In addition, we are scheduling special clinics where we can vaccinate larger groups of people at one time. An announcement will be made about these clinics when we have staffing and vaccine on hand.”

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Northeast Georgia Physicians Group's Alix Schnibben loads a syringe with COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Health System Corporate Plaza during the first NGHS vaccine clinic for those 65 and older. - photo by Scott Rogers
DPH creates vaccine locator

The Department of Public Health announced Sunday, Jan. 10, its creation of a COVID-19 vaccine provider locator on its website.

As of Monday, only the Hall County Health Department was showing on the locator as a Hall County provider. 

“Additional locations statewide will be added when providers are ready to safely administer vaccine, and as vaccine supply allows,” according to the DPH release announcing the locator. “All health departments and most other providers require appointments for vaccine administration. Because vaccine supply is limited, providers may not have immediate appointments available.”

DPH said Georgia residents are still in phase 1A+ of the vaccine administration. Outside of health care workers and the residents and staff of long-term care facilities, the vaccine is also available to law enforcement, firefighters, 911 dispatchers, first responders and people ages 65 and older as well as their caregivers.

The vaccine locator can be found here.

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