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Health department hiring more staff as COVID-19 vaccine registration sees 'overwhelming demand'
Vaccine - AP PHOTO
This May 4, 2020, file photo provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, shows the first patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. On Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, Pfizer said an early peek at its vaccine data suggests the shots may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19. (Courtesy of University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

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Health department officials say "overwhelming demand" for the COVID-19 vaccine has meant appointment slots on the newly opened registration link for vaccination have already filled up, and the health department is hiring more staff to make more appointments available.

The Times reached out to District 2 Public Health after Hall residents reported they could not make an appointment for either January or February, the only two options when searching for an appointment on the registration page.

"We have been adding some appointments to the calendar as we can reassign staff to assist with vaccination," said Dave Palmer, a spokesman for District 2 Public Health. "We ask that people be patient as we work through administering the vaccine. Everyone who wants to get vaccinated will be vaccinated, but it takes time."

Palmer said the health department has been hiring more staff, "as funding allows," and as those staff are added and trained, more appointments will be available. Appointments will be made for residents in the county in which they live or work. Vaccines will be given by appointment only, the department says.

In the meantime, Palmer said residents should check the registration page at phdistrict2.org "a few times a day" to see if any appointments have been added.

In response to reports that calls to the health department have been going unanswered, Palmer said the department is also “adding capacity to our call center to handle the large volume of phone calls.”

At this point, the health department is taking appointments for only individuals in certain groups, including first responders, those over age 65 and residents of long-term care facilities, and those immunizations are expected to start Monday.

At a news conference on Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp also told Georgians the state health department will make information available online that will help direct those eligible to get vaccinated to the correct locations. 

Kemp said four vaccination sites for health care workers will be set up in Gwinnett, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

In terms of local vaccinations, the District 2 Public Health office is asking that residents do not show up to health department facilities for the vaccine without an appointment. 

The department also provided this information:

  • We will limit the number of people in enclosed spaces by observing recommended social distances to prevent the spread of illness

  • Come to your appointment as close to the allotted time as possible to reduce the number of people in the waiting area (you may be asked to wait outside or in your car if you are too early)

  • Bring a form of identification

  • If you have insurance, please bring your card. Insurance will help pay to offset the cost for administering the vaccine, however, there will be no cost to anyone to get vaccinated

  • You should plan to remain for post-vaccination observation for up to 30 minutes

  • Prior to vaccination, review of product-specific safety information and consent will be required

  • Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccine require two doses – appointments are required for both doses

  • Please understand you will receive the vaccine that is available (Pfizer or Moderna)

Though some deputies in Lumpkin and Forsyth Counties have begun receiving the vaccine, as posted on the Facebook pages of those sheriff's offices, Hall County Sheriff's Office deputies and Gainesville Police officers expect to start receiving their shots on Monday and Tuesday, according to Hall sheriff's office spokesman Derreck Booth and Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish.

Kate Maine, vice president for university relations at the University of North Georgia, said those in education are among the essential workers next in line for the shots.

“I anticipate that happening soon,” Maine wrote in an email obtained by The Times. “Again, we will provide details as soon as they are available.”

Melissa Frank, Northeast Georgia Health System’s director of pharmacy services, said the system had vaccinated nearly 4,000 employees as of Wednesday, Jan. 6, which is roughly one-third of NGHS’ workforce.

“Administering vaccines during the holidays was challenging, and it’s been tough to move quickly when we’re advising employees to get their shot before a day off work, just in case they experience any of the common side effects like headaches, fatigue, etc.,” Frank said in a statement. “It’s also difficult for some of our workers to break away when we’re seeing record numbers of patients, and many employees have either been sick themselves or picking up extra shifts.”

The health system reported two consecutive record days on Thursday, Jan. 7, and Friday, Jan. 8.

On Friday, NGHS reported 355 COVID-19 patients being treated at its facilities, with two intensive care unit beds available at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, and one at the Braselton hospital. 

The health system also reported this week that emergency departments are so overrun that some people who arrive at the hospital in ambulances are having to be treated in the vehicles outside the hospital building.

For information on the phases of vaccine rollout, visit dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.

The Associated Press and Gainesville Times reporter Nick Watson contributed to this report.

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