NORTH FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit metro Atlanta, primary care doctors say they became the first line of defense against the virus. Now, some feel they’ll be among the last health care workers in line to get vaccinated.
“COVID has been really tough for those of us who are in the primary care arena,” pediatrician, Dr. Kirsten Mekelburg, told Channel 2′s Mike Petchenik.
Mekelburg and her colleagues in the pediatric field say they’ve been treating COVID-positive patients with the goal of keeping them out of hospitals.
[SPECIAL SECTION: Coronavirus Pandemic in Georgia]
So, when the vaccine began rolling out last week, they saw a light at the end of what’s been a very dark tunnel.
“We were hopeful that we would be amongst the frontline health care workers that would have access to the vaccine,” she said. “Unfortunately, our local healthcare systems did not take care of us primary care physicians in the way that we thought that they would.”
Mekelburg said she and many of her colleagues are now jockeying to get vaccine appointments at local health departments, such as in Athens or Rockdale County. She said she waited on the phone for a total of 7 hours this weekend just to get an appointment.
“Right now we feel like we’re scrambling and almost competing against our other fellow physicians scrambling trying to get appointments anywhere that we can get an appointment at this point,” she said. “I don’t know why those of us who are seeing patients face-to-face every single day have been unable to get vaccines.”
Jennifer Rego, a physician assistant who worked in the Children’s Healthcare at Scottish Rite emergency room until July, recently started her own mobile COVID-19 response unit.
“I do probably a dozen or more COVID tests a day, more recently in the teen, young adult population,” she said. “Over half, almost every day are positive.”
Rego, too, thought she might be among first in line to get the vaccine when shipments began to arrive in Georgia last week. She was disappointed to learn she’d have to wait longer.
“I think I think these hospital systems have worried about themselves in a way that they’re protecting their admin and their non-clinical staff, before worrying about the community that is probably seeing a much larger portion of COVID,” she said. “We’ve all seen ‘Titanic.’ And you know, when it gets hairy about who’s going to get on a lifeboat, the order goes into chaos. I feel like I’m in that situation.”
Dr. Ghazala Quraishi, a pediatric neurologist in private practice, but affiliated with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, told Petchenik she and her husband, also a pediatrician, have been unable to find vaccines for themselves.
“I just feel like we should not be left out. Because we do make our sacrifices -- We need to be healthy as well as the doctors who are in the hospital,” she said “Outpatient practices that affiliate with hospitals have to comply to their regulation. I pay my fees. I do my continuing medical education. I follow their guidelines to stay on as affiliated doctor, but in turn, I’m not counted as one of their members to get the vaccine, which I find a little unfair.”
Petchenik reached out to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta:
“Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta agrees that our community physicians and their staff play a critical role in providing care to pediatric patients and should be prioritized for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. The Georgia Department of Public Health indicated they have provided vaccine guidance to community physicians and their staff. Please contact the Department of Public Health for additional information.
Additionally we can confirm Children’s has only received 25 percent of the vaccine shipment we requested. Administrative leaders have not received the vaccine; only patient-facing physicians and staff are being vaccinated in our first wave.”
Last week, state health officials learned shipments of the Pfizer vaccine had been cut by 40%.
Gov. Brian Kemp acknowledged the supply and demand issue.
“We’ve got more people wanting the vaccine than we’ve got to give right now,” he said during a news conference.
Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, told Petchenik Sunday the state has been “following CDC guidance on distribution of initial vaccine supplies.”
“As you know, we do not have enough vaccines right now to administer to every physician and doctor’s office,” Hall told Petchenik.
Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, told Petchenik 537,000 healthcare workers are due to receive a vaccine during Phase 1, but as of Monday afternoon, the state had only received about 84,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
“With 174,000 doses of Moderna beginning to arrive today, and a second allocation of ~40,000 Pfizer doses (total allocation was 60,000 doses but 20,000 of that is set aside for residents of long-term care facilities), that will begin to help even out supply and demand for this first phase. With the exception of a handful, it is anticipated every county health department will be getting shipments of Moderna vaccine today. That should alleviate 2 hour drives for most healthcare workers seeking vaccine. However, even with those doses, we do not yet have enough for every healthcare worker in the state. There is more vaccine coming every week from both Pfizer and Moderna, the more doses we get, the more people we can vaccinate.”
Nydam had the following suggestions for healthcare workers:
• Health care workers affiliated with a health care system (hospital, clinic or private practice) or pharmacy should contact their respective facilities about the process for vaccinating eligible employees.
• Health care workers with access to a community hospital or pharmacy can seek vaccination there.
“It is also important to note that it is up to each provider to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for prioritizing vaccination among their staff, as well as adhering to the vaccine provider agreement they signed when they enrolled as a provider. This will help ensure that vaccine is administered first to those healthcare workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients or those who handle COVID-19 materials.”
A recent report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found a disparity in distributions across the state, even in hospitals.
The AJC found one private cancer facility in Coweta County received enough doses to inoculate its entire 1000 person staff, including non-clinical employees, while a nearby non-profit hospital had not received a single dose. READ MORE HERE.
“I feel like it’s a distribution problem, not a lack of vaccine problems,” said Dr. Jennifer Williams, a OB-GYN who is affiliated with Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. “It seems that several of the high acuity healthcare systems in the biggest city in the state were shorted not just a little, a lot.”
Petchenik got a statement from Piedmont Hospital:
“Piedmont has submitted orders for enough vaccine to cover our workforce – more than 30,000 people including employees, employed and independent medical staff, and agency/contract staff. We are committed to, over time, providing this vaccine to our entire workforce. Due to the limited quantity of the vaccine, we have segmented our workforce into waves, according to guidelines provided by the CDC and DPH. The first wave includes approximately 11,000 team members who have the highest risk, due to the potential exposure during their daily routines. We were informed last week that we would receive nearly 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but as of this afternoon (Dec. 21), we have received just two-thirds of these doses. We did receive our first allocation of the Moderna vaccine today. Because we don’t have the supply to meet the demand, we’ve created a randomized lottery system for team members who opt-in to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Friday, Piedmont had vaccinated approximately 300 team members. Broader vaccination began at all our hospitals today.”
For Atlanta dermatologist, Dr. Jamie Weisman, getting the vaccine could literally be a life-saver.
Weisman is immunocompromised and has continued to see patients, many of whom must take off their masks to be treated, inside of her clinic.
“It has been such a crazy rollout,” she told Petchenik. “I would say that it’s just part and parcel of the whole way that we’ve managed this crisis, which is, we put the burden of protection on individuals, when it’s actually a public health crisis.”
Sandy Springs-based fertility specialist, Dr. Robin Fogle, told Petchenik she sees hundreds of patients weekly in her clinic and recently found out two of them had tested positive for COVID-19 she treated them.
She said while she’s been unable to get a vaccine, she has seen colleagues doing her same job in other hospitals already rolling up their sleeves.
“I wish that maybe there had been a little bit more uniformity and thought in terms of who really deserves the first distributions of vaccines,” she said.
It’s not just medical doctors unable to find vaccines.
Dentist, Dr. Brett Silverman, said he, too has been scrambling to find shots to protect himself and his staff.
Silverman said his Alpharetta office has remained open and seeing patients, who must take off their masks for him to treat them.
He worries about potential COVID-19 exposure for himself and his staff.
“It doesn’t seem anybody really sat down and thought that how are we going to do this, how we’re going to get that out to the community for the people who truly need it?” he said. “This is a medical community where we take care of each other and we should be supporting each other, not fighting each other to get this vaccine.”
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