All Georgians 16 and older will be able to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced at a Capitol press conference to unveil a huge increase in eligibility.
“This is our ticket back to normal, and we’re getting closer to that point every single day,” he said Tuesday. “I want to encourage you to go ahead and sign up today and be ready for the expanded eligibility on Thursday.”
The expansion comes as the federal government continues to increase Georgia’s allotment of vaccine doses. The state expects to receive 450,000 doses this week, Kemp said, but Georgia has struggled to vaccinate its population.
Meanwhile, a worrisome new increase in COVID-19 variants is spreading in Georgia, according to Georgia Department of Public Health Commission Dr. Kathleen Toomey.
Georgia has administered more than 3.2 million doses, more than 1.1 million of which were second doses, according to the state’s public health department.
Georgia ranks last in the country in the number of first doses given, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Kemp has disputed those numbers, and on Tuesday he also said Georgia is receiving the second-lowest per capita allotment of vaccine doses of all the states.
“We must always do better at getting shots into arms, there’s no doubt about that, but we are also 49 out of 50 states in vaccines shipped to us by the federal government per 100,000 residents. So when Dr. Toomey and I continue to say we have supply issues as a whole state, the CDC data proves that point,” he said.
The state has also discovered uneven demand for vaccine doses in some communities, with shots often hard to come by in metro Atlanta but more available elsewhere in Georgia.
Kemp said the state is working with local doctors, faith leaders and others in those low-demand areas to encourage people to get the shots, adding that he is scheduled to receive his first dose in Waycross Friday, and he hopes getting shots in rural southeast Georgia will help persuade people there that the vaccines are safe and effective.
He also pledged the state will continue shipping vaccines from areas with low demand to areas with high demand, though the overall supply remains low.
Toomey said she is encouraged by the expansion and by the state’s improving data. The weekly case average is down, as are hospitalizations, she said, though she cautioned that mutated COVID-19 strains could pose a problem.
“Variants add a little twist to this because they are easier to transmit and some of them may be a little less susceptible to protection by the vaccine,” she said.
The state has reported over 300 cases of the UK variant, fewer of the South African variant, and one of the Brazilian variant, which may spread more easily and come with more severe symptoms.
“We’re staying on top of this very, very closely,” she said. “This is where contact tracing is absolutely essential, and our 1,500 contact tracers are being fully deployed.”
It is just over a year since Kemp declared a state of emergency as COVID-19 cases spiked in Georgia. There are 844,000 reported COVID-19 cases in Georgia, and more than 16,000 people have died from the disease.