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As Gwinnett County begins vaccinating teachers, Gov. Brian Kemp praises county's mass COVID-19 vaccination site

As Graves Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Bryan Burroughs got his first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Monday morning, he looked away so he wouldn’t see the needle going into his arm.

At the same time, however, he said he felt a sense of relief as the vaccine was injected into him. He also felt a sense that health officials value him and other teachers by taking steps to make sure the vaccine is available to him.

“I was just grateful,” Burroughs said. “The person giving me the injection told me she works for Gwinnett county Public Schools also, and so I was just grateful that all hands were on deck to get teachers vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“I did alright with it. I didn’t want to look, but I did OK.”

Monday was the first day that all teachers in Georgia were eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine as the state expanded the pool of people who can get vaccinated.

As the first 600 Gwinnett County Public Schools teachers and staff who had appointments to get vaccinated on Monday showed up to get their doses at the former Sears location at Gwinnett Place Mall, Gov. Brian Kemp stopped by to see how the mass vaccination site has been working.

The site — which has the ability to vaccinate up to 3,000 people a day once enough vaccine doses are available — is currently administering more than 1,800 doses a day.

“We’re so excited to be vaccinating teachers today, 600 of them just at this site, so this is a great day for our state in the fight against this invisible virus,” Kemp said.

The governor praised the partnership between county government, business and health leaders who got the mass vaccination site set up. County leaders worked with the health department as well as the Gwinnett Place Community Improvement District and Northwood Ravin, which owns the former Sears space, to establish the mass vaccination site at the mall.

“We had a great walk-though inside,” Kemp said. “It’s very impressive what this team is doing. There are school nurses working in conjunction with the regular folks who have been here the last several weeks to help the expanding criteria to help get our teachers vaccinated as well as those other eligible Georgians.

“(There’s a) very impressive process that they have here, much like what I saw earlier this morning in Habersham County at our mass vaccination site up there.”

Gwinnett County Public Schools has scheduled appointments for 3,600 employees this week, and another 3,600 employees next week. GCPS Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said more than about 8,000 teachers have indicated an interest in getting vaccinated through a partnership between the school system and the health department.

“I’m sure some people maybe can’t, but it would probably be good if all that were able to to get vaccinated,” he said.

The superintendent said it is possible that teachers who have not yet opted in to get vaccinated through the partnership between school and health officials to go ahead and do so.

“They’ll still be available,” Wilbanks said. “Now, it may not be an organized day like today, but there will be times available for them to come and get it, and if we need to, we would work with the health department to organize it.

“We would like for everybody who wants to be vaccinated, we’d like to make sure that happens.”

For Burroughs, the decision to get vaccinated was based not only on himself, but the people around him.

PHOTOS: Gov. Brian Kemp visits mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Gwinnett Place Mall

“(It was) for the health of myself and everybody in my social network, my family at home, my parents, my students (and) their families as well, so the help for myself and the help for everyone involved,” he said.

The district is currently eyeing having all students back in school in the fall, but the superintendent said that could change if there is an uptick in cases. Wilbanks said the decision on whether GCPS will open for all in-person learning this fall will also take vaccinations into account — the superintendent said teacher vaccinations “certainly is” is big factor in the decision.

“We appreciate those who are taking advantage of this and hopefully the others will, unless they have underlying conditions that their doctors recommend that they don’t get vaccinated,” Wilbanks said.

Northside Hospital contract rift with insurer affects thousands in Gwinnett County

Thousands of UnitedHealthcare members are now facing much higher out-of-pocket costs if they go to two Gwinnett County hospitals.

The insurer’s contract with Northside Hospital Gwinnett in Lawrenceville and Northside Hospital Duluth ended March 1.

Contract negotiations between insurers and hospitals sometimes become public and nasty in tone, but usually are settled before a renewal deadline.

Both UnitedHealthcare, based in Minnesota, and Atlanta-based Northside say they’re focused on ensuring the affected patients get needed treatment.

“We have close to 11,000 patients who now are out-of-network for care at two Northside hospitals – Gwinnett and Duluth,’’ ontract with Northside Hospital Gwinnett in Lawrenceville and Northside Hospital Duluth ended March 1., a Northside vice president, told Georgia Health News in a statement. “Our patient care leadership is doing everything possible to ensure patients receive treatments and have options. But with the worst public health crisis in more than a century still wreaking havoc, the timing of UnitedHealthcare’s move is hard to understand.”

United said Monday that about 5,000 members received care at one of the Gwinnett facilities in the past year and were notified of the network change.

Northside Hospital acquired the former Gwinnett system, including the Lawrenceville and Duluth hospitals, in 2019. Gwinnett is the second most populous county in the state.

United emphasizes that during the dispute, patients have other options for getting hospital care in or near Gwinnett County, including Eastside Medical Center in Snellville and Emory Johns Creek Hospital in Johns Creek. The main Northside campus in Atlanta and its hospitals in Cherokee and Forsyth counties remain in United’s network.

The contract termination does not affect United’s contract with Northside Gwinnett’s employed physicians.

“Despite repeated efforts, we were unable to reach an agreement to renew our relationship with Northside Health System’s Gwinnett hospitals,’’ United said in a statement.

“While we remain committed to continued discussions with Northside to restore network access to its Gwinnett facilities at an affordable cost for the people we serve, our primary focus at this time is ensuring that our members have uninterrupted access to the care they need and supporting them as they transition to new care providers.”

Also out of network now are Northside Gwinnett Joan Glancy, a rehabilitation facility, and Northside Gwinnett Extended Care Center.

Craig Savage, a consultant with North Carolina-based CMBC Advisors, said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much uncertainty into the health care marketplace.

For managed-care insurers like United, ‘‘quality of services is still important,’’ Savage said. But he added that he believes the prices of hospital services will be the major driver in contracts, “as long as your enrollees have reasonable geographic access [to hospitals and other medical facilities].’’

The nonprofit Northside system said last week that it has added or will add beds at all five of its hospitals.

Northside Gwinnett expanded its inpatient capacity in December with 71 fully equipped modular units — being used for inpatient care of all types, and is wrapping up renovation and expansion of two inpatient units for cardiovascular medical and surgical patients. Construction also is under way on an expansion of the Emergency Department, which will double its current size, Northside said.

And in August, Northside Duluth opened 16 modular beds, followed by another six beds in October, and in January 2021 added 10 observation beds adjacent to the ED. In all, the hospital will increase its capacity by more than 40 percent this year.

Gwinnett County elections supervisor leaving to take job with company that printed county's 2020 absentee ballots

Gwinnett County’s elections board will be looking for a new elections supervisor for the second time in less than two years.

The county’s current elections supervisor, Kristi Royston, recently submitted her letter of resignation to the Gwinnett County Board of Registrations and Elections — nearly a year and a half after she was appointed to the job permanently after holding it on an interim basis.

Royston’s last day as Gwinnett’s elections supervisor will be March 17. The elections board is set to hold a special called meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the county’s elections office in Lawrenceville.

“Those who sat on the board when I was promoted are aware that I really didn’t want the job of elections supervisor,” she said in her resignation letter. “I went into the position because I felt that staff needed someone they trusted to work with them through 2020. I knew I needed someone I trusted too.

“None of us knew what 2020 was going to bring our way. There were some bumps along the way, but overall, we did a great job. We made improvements and strides of which we can all be proud.”

Royston told the board that she is going to work for New York-based Fort Orange Press, the company that printed Gwinnett’s absentee ballots last year.

The county used Fort Orange Press instead of an Arizona-based vendors much of the rest of the state was using to print and send out absentee ballots because Gwinnett is the only county in Georgia that is required by federal rules to provide elections materials in both English and Spanish. The state’s vendor did not make absentee ballot envelops large enough to fit instructions in both English and Spanish in a font size that was large enough to read, so that county contracted with Fort Orange Press instead.

Royston will serve as a customer satisfaction representative for Fort Orange Press’ clients in Georgia.

“I am both excited for this new opportunity as well as sad to leave Gwinnett County government,” Royston said in her resignation letter. “During my time here, I have learned so much and grown both professionally and personally. The county is very fortunate to have the voter registrations and elections staff that it does. They are an amazing group of people who accomplish amazing things.”

Royston was the elections division’s deputy director before she was appointed the interim director in July 2019, when former supervisor Lynn Ledford was moved to a special projects role in the county’s Department of Community Services.

Royston had been the deputy director under Ledford for about a decade prior to being named the interim director. She was named the permanent elections supervisor in September 2019, after a search that began in April of that year and lasted about five months.

Prior to her work for Gwinnett, Royston worked for the Secretary of State’s Office when Cathy Cox held that office, and later served as a clerk in Athens-Clarke County’s elections office and then as elections director for Barrow County.

“My work with Fort Orange Press will allow me to help elections administrators throughout the state by providing great products and allowing them opportunities to better manage their responsibilities,” Royston said. “I will also be supporting fair and secure elections to all voters in the counties who partner with us.”

Gwinnett County libraries reopening Wednesday

Gwinnett County residents will be able to head back to their local libraries this week.

The Gwinnett County Public Library system announced it will reopen its 15 branches to the public on Wednesday after a COVID-19 related closure. Officials said the libraries will be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and noon until 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Visitors will be able to use computers, browse book collections, access digital resources, the book concierge and virtual Book-A-Librarian services, but some amenities will remain closed for now.

“As a precaution to help limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), and support the community’s efforts to promote social distancing, our Learning labs, Open Access service, meeting/conference rooms, and quiet rooms will remain closed,” library officials said. “Also, some of our furniture and devices will be unavailable. Masks will be required and temperature checks will be done.”

Community members who need information about the library services can call 770-978-5154, send a text message to 770-450-5305 or visit www.gwinnettpl.org. Anyone who needs help in Spanish can call 855-938-0434.