State suspends vaccine supply to provider in rural Georgia after it vaccinated teachers

ELBERT COUNTY, Ga. — The Georgia Department of Public Health has imposed a six month vaccine supply suspension on a main rural county provider that’s been vaccinating educators.

The suspension comes as the Medical Center of Elberton moved beyond current state guidelines to meet demand of their teachers who have returned to face-to-face learning.

“We plan to appeal,” said Brooke McDowell, the center’s practice administrator.

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Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr traveled to Elbert County on Wednesday afternoon to watch teachers receive their second doses.

“My largest class is 24 students,” high school drama teacher David Bennett said. “We wear masks in the classroom, well the majority of us wear masks in the classroom. We can’t make it mandatory for all the students and everything.”

As the high school drama teacher was monitored for any immediate side-effects, more teachers came to receive their vaccines.

“I’m exposed to it pretty much all the time,” Elbert County High School teacher Tracy Brown said, describing recent contact with a positive student that sent her into quarantine. “We’re in a war zone with this thing, too.”

“I’m just appreciative of being in the county that facilitated it first,” said Dr. Edna Eberhardt, a social studies teacher at the high school.

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The group may be among the only educators in Georgia, outside of current guidelines who have been receiving the vaccine in the rural county, east of Athens.

Georgia sits in Phase 1a-plus category, prioritizing nursing home residents and staff, healthcare workers, first responders, and people are 65+.

There’s been an increased call from Georgia school leaders for educators to move up into the category, while state leaders cite a simple supply and demand issue.

But an Elbert County health official says they could risk losing precious supply if they don’t vaccinate willing patients who are also essential to one of the county’s top employers-Elbert County Schools.

“The governor has asked us to put shots in arms and that’s what we want to do,” said McDowell, a medical administrator with the county’s health center.

McDowell, speaking earlier in the afternoon, said the county has received nearly 4,000 of the county’s 5,000 doses since mid-December.

On Dec. 17, they immediately opened up vaccine appointments to willing 1A group members.

By Jan. 4, they called educators in, looking to finish off the supply before March. They continue to vaccinate at a pace of 90 patients a day.

The county has administered 1,100 vaccines, with 10% of the patients working in the schools as teachers, bus drivers and other staff professionals.

“Our goal was to use this shipment before it expired,” McDowell explained. “I think it’s unrealistic for the State to expect us to wait on a vaccine that spoils so quickly. So we wanted to go ahead and get it out.”

On New Year’s Eve, the state announced it was working on a way to relocate unused vaccines.

“We had roughly 40% of employees that said they wanted the shot with this first round,” Elbert County superintendent Jon Jarvis said.

The school system has 500 employees and returned to face-to-face learning.

Jarvis said they started talking about the county’s pandemic plan before the school year started. That plan, which includes guidelines for vaccinations, is coordinated with the county’s emergency services division.

He said the face-to-face return tied to county needs.

“We do have a problem with Internet in our community,” Jarvis said. “We’re rural. It’s hard for some of my families to connect.”

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Health indicated the department could consider halting vaccine shipments to Elbert County.

“The Georgia Department of Public Health will notify COVID vaccine providers when to move to the next phase,” the statement read. “Moving to additional phases without approval from DPH is a violation of the vaccine provider agreement.”

“If an investigation confirms that a vaccine provider is in violation of the provider agreement, the agreement can be rescinded and the provider will no longer receive vaccine,” the statement continues.

Carr asked if the state had called Elbert County to follow-up in an investigation that could lead to a supply halt.

“Right now I’m going to decline to comment on that,” McDowell said early Wednesday.

By Wednesday evening, she confirmed the state had just called to notify her they’d suspended the county’s shipment supply for six months.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Bennett said earlier in the day. “I believe in giving us the protection we need to do the jobs that we have to do each and every day.”

ATLANTA MAYOR SPEAKS WITH BIDEN ADMINSTRATION FOR VACCINES

Channel 2′s Richard Elliot spoke with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during her visit to the State Capitol.

Bottoms told Elliot she’s asked the Biden administration to start sending direct allocations of COVID-19 vaccines directly to the nation’s cities.

“I’ve joined several majors across the nation in writing a letter to the administration asking that in addition to the coordination with the states, that local government entities such as Atlanta be given direct allocations for the vaccine,” she said.

Despite a sometimes contentious past relationship with the state, Bottoms was careful not to criticize Georgia’s pandemic response or its distribution plan.

She believes the federal government could send vaccines to Atlanta in conjunction with deliveries to the state.

Just a day earlier, Gov. Brian Kemp lamented the limited supply of vaccines earmarked for Georgia. Biden later announced he would increase that by 17%

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said as long as Georgia continues to get its supply, the office has no issue with some going to Atlanta.

“If the city or any local county wants to be a partner and work with their local public health department to better administer vaccines, we’re all ears,” Hall said.

Bottoms said she’s still waiting to hear from the White House about her proposal.

“I don’t know what the response will be but I am confident that with the new administration that there will be a more coordinated, more sustained rollout of the vaccine, so that’s encouraging,” Bottoms said.

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