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Commissioner Criticizes Athens COVID Vaccine Rollout

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Why is it so hard to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination in Athens? Like many residents, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link wants to know.

Link criticized health officials at a local Board of Health meeting last week for what she perceived as a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Athens. Vaccine appointments are hard to come by in Athens, she said, forcing residents to drive to a mass vaccination site in Habersham County an hour away, or to Oglethorpe County, where the health department has organized mass vaccination events. “I really only know three or four people who’ve gotten the vaccine in town, and when people go to Habersham or Oglethorpe, they talk about how many folks they saw from Athens,” she said.

This makes it especially difficult for people who don’t have cars or people like the elderly who can’t drive, Link said. “No one should have to leave the county to get a vaccine within a reasonable period of time, and everyone should have the means to get a vaccine without an automobile,” she said.

Stephen Goggans, director of the 10-county Northeast Health District, defended its vaccine distribution. Athens has received half the shots allocated to the district, which is “more than a proportional share,” he said, and the Clarke County Health Department is vaccinating 2,000-2,500 people a day. “There may be people going to Oglethorpe County, but the issue isn’t that we’re not doing enough in Clarke,” Goggans said. “We are fully deploying everybody [who works for] the district with a ton of volunteers.”

When Link asked why Athens doesn’t have a mass vaccination site like the one in Clarkesville, Goggans said that those sites were set up by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, not the Department of Public Health. He said he was told that GEMA chose places that are undervaccinated to try to fill in gaps. 

Other GEMA-run sites are in Hapeville and Cartersville outside of Atlanta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah, Sandersville, Waycross and Albany. Earlier this month, Gov. Brian Kemp urged Atlanta residents clamoring for the vaccine to drive to Albany, where demand is low, but he’s since directed more shots to North Georgia.

One problem is that the district has seen a lot of no-shows because people are “shopping around,” making multiple appointments and then skipping all but one, said District Administrator Emily Eisenman. She said the district also sees surges whenever Kemp eases restrictions on who can get the vaccine, as he did Mar. 25, when he opened it up to everyone over age 16.

Link also pressed public health officials to talk to the University of Georgia about vaccinating students, especially now that Kemp is allowing bars to open at full capacity, rather than 35% or 50 people. “Those students are the ones engaging in risky behavior,” she said. “If they don’t get vaccinated, and they start spreading around new variants, we’re screwed.” She is concerned about service industry workers, too, she added.

Scientists say that current vaccines are effective against coronavirus variants that have emerged so far, but they might not be against future variants.

UGA reported just 25 positive tests among students for the week of Mar. 21. The total of 32, including seven staff members and no faculty members, was the lowest number since UGA began testing in August. However, surveillance testing is down recently, contributing to lower totals, and many people have questioned how much students are actually using the DawgCheck self-reporting app.

Commissioner Allison Wright asked when Athens will be getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in addition to the Pfizer and Moderna versions that are more widely available. The district has received one shipment of 1,500 shots and another is expected in April, Goggans said. Because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only one shot, it’s being reserved for mobile clinics to avoid having to schedule a follow-up visit, he said.

In contrast to Link, Wright complimented health officials’ work on vaccinations. “The speed with which you’ve gotten it into arms compared to when it came to the state, I’m impressed,” Wright said.