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All Georgians over 16 eligible for COVID-19 vaccine Thursday
Anita Shetty M.D. gives 17-year-old cancer survivor Jordan Loughan a Pfizer vaccination as operations get underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest Community Vaccination Center in the southeast serving an average of 42,000 citizens a week on Tuesday, March 23, 2021, in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — All Georgians 16 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination beginning Thursday.

Gov Brian Kemp made the announcement Tuesday, saying supplies of the vaccine continue to rise and that he's confident that enough older adults have been vaccinated to open up inoculation to the broadest possible population. Well more than half of the 8.4 million Georgians aged 16 and over were already eligible, including anyone 55 or older.

Figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health show the state has administered 3.2 million doses overall, with nearly 2.1 million people getting at least one dose.

The number of doses being administered has shown a clear upward trend in recent weeks, with a peak of more than 85,000 doses given on March 15, the first day that Kemp expanded eligibility to current levels. Kemp had earlier said he expected to open the door to anyone eligible in early April, but indicated he was making the move now in part to encourage more people outside of metro Atlanta to get shots in places where appointments are going begging. The state made its Savannah site available to people without appointments this week and announced it would close its Albany site, instead referring people to local health authorities.

"In much of rural Georgia, south of Macon, the demand is much lower," Kemp said.

Demand is still outstripping supply in metro Atlanta and areas within a 90-minute drive of the city. Kemp said the state directed 70% of this week's 450,000 doses to metro Atlanta and areas north of the city.

"I just want to encourage everybody to get the vaccine," Kemp said, urging Atlanta-area residents to make appointments now, even if the times available are more than a week away. He said city dwellers "desperate" to get a shot could find appointments this week if they're willing to drive, while acknowledging day trips wouldn't be possible for some residents. 

Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will get a boost in capacity starting Thursday when the Federal Emergency Management Agency adds doses to a site that had been run by Fulton County.

Kemp said he would get vaccinated Friday in Waycross in a region of the state where many counties have low vaccination rates, seeking to highlight the desirability of getting protected. County-level rates can be distorted because doses are being recorded in the county where people get shots, not where they live.

Georgia continues to lag most other states in vaccination, ranking second-worst behind Alabama in the number of doses administered per 100,000 people 18 and older.

Kemp continues to focus on the state's relative success in vaccinating people over 65, saying vaccinations of that older population has now topped 1 million, or about three-quarters of that population. He reiterated Tuesday that Georgia officials have identified a number of doses that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't recorded. He also said CDC data show Georgia is getting the second-lowest number of doses per capita.

Georgia has recorded more than 1 million cases of the respiratory disease, with more than 18,000 confirmed and probable deaths. Cases fell sharply after peaking in mid-January, but newly reported cases have rebounded some in the past week. 

Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said the department is identifying more cases of variants of the virus, which could lead to a new surge in cases if vaccination doesn't become widespread.

"The variants add a little twist to this," Toomey said. "They are easier to transmit and some of them may be a little bit less susceptible to protection by the vaccine."

She said the state is intensifying efforts among hard-to-reach populations, trying to create special clinics for the developmentally disabled and vaccinating 3,000 homebound people in their houses.

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