Kemp suggests metro Atlantans hit the road to get scarce vaccines

    Goc. Brian Kemp, Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp GEMA Director Chris Stallings and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey enter the Capitol to deliver remarks about the state's COVID-19 rollout. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

    Just over a year after Gov. Brian Kemp declared a statewide health emergency, weekly COVID-19 cases and positive tests are in decline as the vaccine becomes more widely available, but shots can be hard to find in metro Atlanta even as they are more plentiful in rural areas.

    Georgia health care providers have administered more than 2.7 million doses, including shots for nearly 1 million seniors. The number of Georgians eligible for the shot continues to grow, with judges and court employees joining the ranks Tuesday, one day after Georgians 55 and older or with serious medical conditions became eligible. The state is on track to make the vaccine available to all residents by next month, Kemp said at a Capitol press conference Tuesday.

    The last year has been difficult, but many Georgians have shown true bravery, Kemp said.

    “There’s so much heroic work that has gone on, it makes me damn proud to be a Georgian,” Kemp said, singling out health workers, educators and National Guard troops among others who deserve credit for fighting the pandemic.

    The governor said his heart breaks for the families of the nearly 16,000 Georgians who died from COVID-19 and the countless more who lost their jobs or businesses, as well as the students who have been unable to return to the classroom. But he stopped short of saying whether he would do anything differently if he had a second chance.

    “I’m not going to try to go back and second-guess myself or the things that (Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen) Toomey and (GEMA Director Chris) Stallings and former Director Homer Bryson and many other people that were part of our team went through,” he said. “There’s no question about it, we had to make some very tough choices during extraordinary times, and there is no playbook for this.”

    Kemp was right to praise the hard work of those Georgians, said Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a public health microbiologist, but the state could have done more to communicate proper safety measures to all areas of the state in the early days of the pandemic and instituted stricter rules on reopening businesses.

    “We’ve had a lot of death in the last year, and I think there’s a lot of things that we could have done to prevent a lot of that, including things like limiting occupancy or closing down high-risk businesses, whether that’s bars and restaurants, not on the long term, but especially when surges were happening,” she said. “That wasn’t done, and it really could have helped a lot.”

    As of Monday, Georgia’s vaccine usage rate was 49th in the nation, according to Schmidtke, and Georgia was the only state to have used less than 70% of its supply.

    Kemp said the state will continue to ship doses from low-demand areas and suggested metro Atlantans who are able to make the drive consider making appointments elsewhere in the state.

    He also rejected reporting that Georgia’s vaccine rate is lower than other states, saying at least 250,000 doses delivered by the Federal Retail Pharmacy Partnership that have been administered have not been counted, though he could not explain why the issue affected Georgia’s numbers and not other states’.

    “I feel certain this affected other states,” he said. “How it has affected us, I don’t know. It doesn’t change my mindset, what we’re focused on, we’re continuing to focus on the most vulnerable, to focus on the medically fragile, and as we get more vaccines, we’re going to open this sucker up to everybody.”

    Kemp’s numbers might be accurate, but data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not back him up, Schmidtke said.

    “I think we’ve all gotten to the point in this pandemic where we kind of expect to see data,” she said. “I kind of joke, if you don’t show me the data, then it didn’t happen. So if we see a data correction, I think that that lends some credibility to that argument, but if not, then it’s just another person’s opinion.”

    Kemp said the state is working with local leaders and health officials to reassure Georgians, especially across rural and minority communities, that the vaccine is safe and effective.

    He said he registered for his vaccine on Tuesday and all eligible Georgians should get on the list as soon as they can.

    “Vaccination is our ticket, as you well know, back to normalcy,” he said. “The more people who are vaccinated, the more lives we save and the quicker we can all get back to our normal way of life.”

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.