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Local health providers keep moving forward as vaccine stockpile questioned nationally
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Certified medical assistant Sabrina Edge, of the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, gives Ron Davidson a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, at the Northeast Georgia Health System Corporate Plaza during the health system's second vaccine clinic for those 65 and over at the site. - photo by Scott Rogers

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A tight local supply of COVID-19 vaccines and an overwhelming demand from those eligible to receive it was complicated further Friday as national news reports called into question the  federal reserve of doses.

For weeks, Operation Warp Speed had been holding large amounts of vaccine in reserve to ensure that those who got their first dose received their second one on time. 

The practice was a hedge against possible manufacturing delays. 

The two COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the U.S. — made by Pfizer and Moderna — are designed to be given in two doses, three or four weeks apart.

When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced on Tuesday that he was ending the practice of holding vaccines in reserve, it was interpreted as essentially doubling the expected supply.

But there was another huge change: He also urged states to open vaccinations to everyone over 65 and younger people with certain health problems, even though most hadn’t yet finished dispensing shots to all the health workers first in line.

The result was a scramble by state and local health authorities to figure out exactly how much vaccine they would receive in the coming weeks and how to ramp up shots for a public with higher expectations.

Georgia began vaccinating those 65 and older, with many in Hall County beginning to get shots starting Jan. 11. 

Local health officials told The Times there are no plans to change distribution. 

The state receives 80,000 doses of the vaccine each week, Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam told The Times Friday.

“Until DPH is officially notified of a change, we will continue to use that number, 80,000, for allocation to providers,” she wrote in an email.

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

Melissa Frank, Northeast Georgia Health System’s pharmacy services director, said the health system has not shifted its distribution plans.

“Our focus is on vaccinating as many of our health care workers and community members as quickly as possible,” Frank said in a statement. “We’re not holding any community 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.”

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

Frank said more vaccination clinics for those aged 65 or older will be announced “as soon as we balance supply and staffing.”

Gov. Brian Kemp in a press conference earlier in the week, had warned against any providers holding back doses.

The state and Northeast Georgia is facing a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.

The health system was treating 325 COVID-19 patients Jan. 15, up 77 from a month ago and up 215 from two months ago, before the Thanksgiving holiday.

There have been 2,509 new cases confirmed in Hall County in the past two weeks, according to the Department of Public Health report Jan. 15.

Michael Pratt, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that states may have been confused in their expectations but that there has been no reduction in vaccine doses shipped to them.

As of Friday, the government had distributed over 31 million doses to states, U.S. territories and major cities. About 12.3 million doses had been administered, according to online tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Associated Press contributed.

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Barbara Davidson prepares to get a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, from a health professional at the Northeast Georgia Health System Corporate Plaza during the health system's second vaccine clinic for those 65 and over at the site. - photo by Scott Rogers


Michael Pratt, a spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said there may be confusion over expectations, but there has been no reduction in vaccine doses shipped to states.

"States are not seeing a reduction of anything," Pratt said. "They may be seeing a reduction of expectations."

As of Friday, the government had distributed over 31 million doses to states, U.S. territories and major cities. But only about 12.3 million doses had been administered, according to online tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the U.S. -- made by Pfizer and Moderna – are designed to be given in two doses, three or four weeks apart.

For weeks, Operation Warp Speed had been holding large amounts of vaccine in reserve to ensure that those who got their first dose received their second one on time. The practice was a hedge against possible manufacturing delays. When HHS Secretary Alex Azar announced on Tuesday that he was ending the practice, it was interpreted as essentially doubling the expected supply. 

But there was another huge change: He also urged states to open vaccinations to everyone over 65 and those younger with certain health problems, even though most hadn't yet finished all the health workers first in line or moved to the next tier, people 75 and older and other essential workers.

The result was a scramble by state and local health authorities to figure out exactly what amount of vaccine they would receive in coming weeks and how to more quickly ramp up mass vaccination plans for a public with higher expectations.

Pratt said doses that were being held in reserve to provide second shots were released last week. It's unclear, however, if they all shipped prior to the Trump administration's announcement early this week that states should open up vaccination to more people.

He said states are getting the required second doses they need and the number of first doses is stable. 

Dr. Andrew Pavia of the University of Utah said one of the current problems "is the mismatch between demand and not just supply but knowing what the supply is."

"We need transparency between the federal government and the states about what vaccine will come, when," he said Thursday at a briefing organized by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "Then we need to be really honest with the American people about, 'When will you get vaccine?'"

Pfizer declined to discuss week-by-week supplies, and Moderna didn't immediately respond to request for an update.

Oregon announced earlier this week that it would expand vaccine eligibility to Oregon's roughly 760,000 residents who are 65 and older, teachers and child care providers because of promises that the state's vaccine allotment would be increased. The news was welcomed, particularly by teachers who are headed back to in-person learning next month in some school districts.

Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen wrote in a letter to Azar late Thursday that the change in dose allotments, if true, would derail Oregon's plans.

At Mary's Woods, a retirement community in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, the news of delayed vaccines hit hard. The governor had announced earlier in the week that residents 65 and older, as well as teachers, would be added to an expanded priority group starting Jan. 23, with promises of a new batch of vaccines from the federal government.

Without that shipment, residents at Mary's Woods expressed fear they will have to wait longer for their shots. Several residents have COVID-19, and others are terrified it could spread to them soon.

"I'm pretty disappointed," said 75-year-old Joan Burns. "We're sequestered and it's difficult to talk to anybody. I am as anxious as I've ever been, and I know it's escalating. We're just playing the odds right now, really."

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