MACON — Georgia threw open the doors for COVID-19 vaccination to a majority of adults Monday, as the state seeks to improve its worst-in-the-nation share of the population that has been inoculated against the respiratory illness.
At the Macon State Farmers Market mass vaccination site, cars full of people waiting their turn for a shot formed a long but orderly line that stretched down the block and out onto a highway, partially blocking a lane of traffic.
The line moved quickly as men and women in military fatigues checked people in by verifying their identification and scanning an electronic code with their appointment information. Cars were then split into three lanes of traffic, where medical staff dressed in blue gowns administered vaccines to drivers and passengers through rolled-down windows.
Monday was the first day that people aged 55 to 64 could get shots, as well as people with serious health conditions and those who are overweight and obese. Before Monday, Georgia was offering vaccinations to people 65 and older, preschool and K-12 education employees, medical workers, emergency workers, residents and employees of long-term care facilities, intellectually disabled adults, and parents of children with certain complicated medical conditions.
Officials with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp's office say that, overall, another 3.3 million people became eligible Monday, meaning more than 5 million Georgians overall can now seek vaccination. Georgia has about 8.4 million residents 16 and older.
Although Walgreens and Kroger showed available appointments on their websites Monday morning, attempts to book those appointments were met with error messages as people snapped up the chances to get the shots. Mallory Blount, a spokeswoman for Kemp, said mass vaccination sites in metro Atlanta and Clarkesville are fully booked this week and urged Atlanta-area residents to consider driving south.
"As we continue to assess demand, we will consider shifting allotments to ensure that vaccines are going to areas of the state with the highest demand," Blount wrote in an email.
The state has been allotted 235,000 first doses and 223,000 second doses this week, officials said.
Some feared that older people will be crowded out in a new rush for appointments.
"Once we start expanding the number of people who are able to get vaccinated, the younger, more tech-savvy individuals are definitely going to snatch up those spots from the seniors," Dr. Cecil Bennett in Newnan told WAGA-TV.
Bennett estimates 60% of his patients older than 65 haven't yet secured a vaccination appointment.
"My seniors are confused," Bennett said. "They're not very tech-savvy, they can barely use smartphones."
The state will open five new mass vaccination sites on Wednesday, including Columbus, Emerson, Sandersville, Savannah and Waycross. The federal government will take over a Fulton County site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.
In Savannah, Chatham County Commission Chairman Chester Ellis told WTOC-TV that the county and others hope to bring people to the mass vaccination site.
"We hope to provide rides where the tele-ride will pick folks up at their house. Carry them to the site, bring them back, as well as those who are maybe in wheelchairs and who have health care providers, to make sure they have transportation to the mega-site," Ellis said
The state is already operating sites in Albany, Clarksville, Hapeville and Macon, while local health boards are operating a number of other sites.
Georgia has only given 20.8% of its adult population at least one dose, the worst in the nation, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same data show Georgia has administered the second-lowest share of doses delivered among states, with 30% of doses still awaiting injection.
"Gov. Kemp and his administration are failing," state Sen. Nikki Merritt, a Grayson Democrat, said in a Senate speech Monday. "We still have seniors, those with disabilities and others with limited mobility who have yet to get a vaccine."
She said it's too hard for people to figure out where to go to get an appointment.
"We should not require Georgians to go on a scavenger hunt to get a vaccine," Merritt said.
Republicans reacted angrily to Merritt's criticism, saying the low share of people vaccinated is not state government's fault.
"That's bunk. Our state continues to roll that out," said Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican from White. "Is it our governor's fault that certain populations are afraid to go get the vaccine? No. As a Republican, it's called personal responsibility."
Cases continue to fall rapidly in Georgia. The seven-day average of newly reported COVID-19 infections fell below 1,600 on Sunday, the lowest level since mid-October. The share of positive molecular tests fell to 5.4%, nearing the 5% threshold that experts have said means large numbers of infections.