ATLANTA — Georgia officials have cut off COVID-19 vaccines to a rural medical practice that disobeyed state guidelines and vaccinated teachers from the local school system, underscoring Gov. Brian Kemp's pledge to not let education employees cut in front of people who have been placed higher on the list to receive the vaccine.
The state Department of Public Health said it has suspended its supply of vaccines to the Medical Center of Elberton after the clinic supplied shots to employees of the 3,000-student Elbert County school district. Officials said about 40% of teachers, bus drivers and other employees have been vaccinated.
"It is critical that DPH maintains the highest standards for vaccine accountability to ensure all federal and state requirements are adhered to by all parties, and vaccine is administered efficiently and equitably," Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam wrote in an email.
Elbert County is northeast of Atlanta on the South Carolina state line.
State rules say only medical workers, emergency workers, nursing home residents and people 65 and older are currently eligible for the shots. Superintendents and teachers groups are pushing to make teachers eligible, but Kemp has refused. The Republican governor says there is too much demand for the current limited supply of vaccine, even with a small increase in supply, without allowing hundreds of thousands of school employees to compete for shots.
"We just do not have the supply to expand the criteria right now," Kemp told WXIA-TV on Wednesday.
The 6-month suspension is effective immediately but health officials said the center may use any remaining vaccine inventory to give second doses to patients. A state-run website that residents can use to find vaccination sites shows at least three other locations in Elbert County that provide vaccines, including a hospital and supermarket in Elberton and a medical clinic in Bowman.
Leaders of the clinic said they would appeal.
"When the state takes this vaccine away from our community, they are punishing our community," said Brooke McDowell, the center's practice administrator. She said the clinic has an otherwise "spotless" record with the Department of Public Health, and believed it was following the guidelines when it began administering the shots. She said that about 170 school system employees have gotten doses, out of more than 1,200 doses administered.
Today, McDowell said the clinic would not give an otherwise ineligible teacher a first dose, but is administering second doses to those already vaccinated. Some teachers got their second doses Wednesday.
"I'm exposed to it pretty much all the time," Elbert County High School teacher Tracy Brown told WSB-TV, describing recent contact with a positive student that sent her into quarantine. "We're in a war zone with this thing, too."
The school district is encouraging but not requiring masks, teachers said.
Superintendents of 11 metro Atlanta school districts, including the state's seven largest districts, wrote Kemp a letter earlier this week telling the governor that letting teachers get vaccinated now would ease teacher fears about getting sick and allow districts to offer in-person instruction even as virus caseloads remain high.
"Prioritize their role in children's lives and reinforce the importance of our schools by doing what is needed to keep them safe and keep our schools open: allow teachers to be vaccinated now," the superintendents wrote.
School districts remain under intense pressure from the pandemic, whether in Clayton, DeKalb and Rockdale counties, where schools remain all-virtual, or in Cobb County where three teachers have died from COVID-19 and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale faced a hailstorm of criticism when he didn't put on a mask at a school board meeting after a teacher requested he do so in memory of one of the deceased teachers.
Kemp said he believed the letter was an attempt by superintendents to escape some of that political pressure. He noted that he had discussed the issue with them at an education conference in Athens over the weekend.
"I know this is all pandemic politics," he told WXIA-TV. "It has nothing to do with whether I would seriously consider the recommendation, because I've told them already and they know I'm not going to do that and I don't have the availability to do that. So they're trying to take the political heat off of them and put it on me."