Grayson resident Robert Beckett was one of the lucky ones this past week.
The 86-year-old’s family was able to make arrangements on Monday get him an appointment to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. On Wednesday, Beckett — an Army veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm — was at the Gwinnett County Health Department’s Lawrenceville center with his son, Bill, to get his shot.
Getting the vaccine was less of an anxiety-inducing moment and more of a relief to Beckett.
“I want to try to get on with life,” he said. “Hopefully, it will get better in another year or two.”
Many people in Beckett’s age group have not been nearly as lucky as he was when it comes to getting an appointment for the vaccine. There are more Gwinnettians who want a COVID-19 vaccine than there are doses available to vaccinate them, according to a spokesman for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments.
Georgia leaders recently expanded the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was originally only available to front line health care workers, to include any Georgian who is over the age of 65. That expansion this past week has quickly led to a demand that health officials are not able to keep up with because of supply issues.
And, that has meant appointments are not easy to get.
“We are certainly seeing an increase in demand, especially since Phase 1A has been expanded and that makes it a little more challenging because, of course, vaccine availability, meaning the supply of vaccine, is one of the driving factors that we have to really tightly manage,” Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments spokesman Chad Wasdin said.
“So, that’s why we are on an appointment-based system, so in order to get a vaccine from the health department, we do require that you have an appointment, and those have been going incredibly fast. I mean every time we release them, they fill up in a short amount of time.”
State and local officials are grappling with a limited supply of vaccine doses and a high demand, particularly in the metro Atlanta area. Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey met with reporters Tuesday afternoon to discuss the distribution of the vaccine across the state.
Kemp — who at one point conceded “there are simply vastly more Georgians that want the vaccine than can get it today” — stressed that while the group of people who can get the vaccine was expanded in Phase 1A to include the elderly, it has always been contingent on availability of the vaccine.
“We certainly have a long way to go,” Kemp said. “Many local health departments are being inundated with calls and web site forms from Georgians hoping to schedule their vaccines.”
The governor warned that phone lines will likely be busy and websites designed to schedule appointments will likely crash due to the demand.
Bill Becket said his family did not run into any issues getting his father’s appointment scheduled, however.
“It was pretty easy,” he said. “We did it online. I think we got lucky.”
Kemp said there are 1.3 million seniors and 536,000 health care workers in Georgia. There is also a limited supply of vaccines being sent out for distribution to the public each week.
The state gets 120,000 vaccines per week, with 40,000 of them designated to go to CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate nursing home employees and residents under the federal Operation Warp Speed program. That means Georgia currently gets about 80,000 vaccines per week to distribute to health care workers and people over 65.
The governor said that works out to be about 11,500 doses a day, and the Georgia Department of Public Health has seen that many vaccine doses, or sometimes more, distributed each day in the last week.
“In the first month of vaccine distribution, we were always going to have far more demand, even after we strictly limited eligibility, than we had supply,” Kemp said. “That is what both Dr. Toomey and I have said consistently since we began this lengthy process.
“Let me remind you, the state is not producing the vaccine or deciding how many vaccines are out there. The number of vaccines administered is, first and foremost, dependent on the number of vaccines made available to us through the federal government and Operation Warp Speed.”
While Georgia saw high demand for health services related to COVID-19 before — namely the high demand and long waits to get a COVID-19 test last summer — that pales in comparison to what the state has seen in terms of demand for the vaccine, Kemp said.
It’s led to frustration among many older Georgians who now qualify for the vaccine but can’t make an appointment to get it because appointment slots are filling up quickly.
Loganville resident Ernest Wade called it “sheer stupidity” on Kemp’s part to open vaccine elligilbility to anyone over 65 in Phase 1A.
“As a result of this gross miscalculation, the website for the Gwinnett-Newton-Rockdale Health System among others has effectively been paralyzed with tens of thousands of senior Georgians becoming quite angry at not only being unable to receive the vaccine but the abysmal lack of information given to them,” Wade said in a letter to the Daily Post.
“A saner approach would have been to first prioritize the more endangered over-80 seniors. What we have here is an unforgivable communications gap at the state and local levels.”
In Gwinnett, there are two vaccination sites being operated by local health officials. One is at the health department’s Lawrenceville health center and the other is at its Norcross health center. Those facilities will offer extended hours on Wednesday and Saturday to distribute more vaccines.
The Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale health district also has a vaccination site in Newton County.
On the week of Jan. 4, the health district’s three sites collectively averaged more than 700 vaccinations a day. They did more than 900 vaccinations during a weekend distribution event on Jan. 9.
“Now that (event on Saturday) made it a little bit easier on Saturday because, of course, we weren’t providing other health department services, like WIC, that are services that we can’t stop offering to the public,” Wasdin said. “We have to continue offering some services and that’s one of those other challenges as well.”
The health department’s spokesman said another factor that is causing the vaccine distribution to go slowly is that officials still have to follow COVID-19 guidelines, which means limiting the number of people on site at any given time to allow for social distancing.
Toomey said, statewide, 227,199 doses of the vaccine had been reported in a state data system as having been distributed as of noon Tuesday.
Wasdin deferred questions about the total number of vaccine doses distributed in Gwinnett to officials at the Georgia Department of Public Health, who have a database that tracks those numbers.
He acknowledged the health department is facing a daunting task of distributing the vaccine, particularly given the high demand and limited supply.
“This is certainly unprecedented,” Wasdin said. “This is a challenging response and we are doing our best to meet the demand that there is in the community.
“However, it’s also important to recognize that ultimately, we won’t be the only providers of vaccines in the community. Other private providers are working on signing up as vaccine providers. They’re working on getting their own stock of vaccines and then they’re looking on their own logistics on how they can start vaccinating, whether it be their own clients or whether they open it up to the larger Phase 1A group.”