ATLANTA — Georgia's plan to expand access to a coronavirus vaccine to people over 65 got off to a rocky start Monday, with the websites of at least two public health districts crashing and other districts reporting overwhelming demand for appointments.
The state was already struggling with its vaccine rollout before the latest woes.
The Coastal Health District, which includes Savannah, stopped scheduling appointments after an “overwhelming response from residents ages 65 and older interested in COVID-19 vaccination,” the district said in a news release.
The district — one of 18 in the state — said health officials in the eight counties it covers have enough requests to schedule appointments through February and, in some cases, into March.
“We know people are frustrated because the process is moving more slowly than they would like, and if we could vaccinate everyone today, we’d do that," Lawton Davis, the district's health director said in a statement. “But your health departments are stretched thin and doing what they can to move forward.”
Davis said at a news conference later that he expects other “large-scale providers” of the vaccine to begin offering shots in the Savannah area either later this week or next week. He said more providers are needed, noting that local health departments traditionally have served a safety net role.
The Southeast Health District, which includes Bulloch and 15 other counties, also began giving out vaccines Monday to people who were able to make appointments last week.
Katie Hadden, public information officer for the health district, said Friday the vaccination clinic at the Bulloch County Health Department on Altman St. would be open Monday and said anyone eligible for a vaccine could call to make an appointment.
However, like other health districts in Georgia, the Southeast District was experiencing a heavy call volume and asked people to be patient and to continue calling.
“We know that this process has been frustrating for many, but we ask for continued patience,” Hadden said Friday. “Our call center agents are working diligently and expediently to respond to those who are calling.”
Several attempts by the Statesboro Herald Monday resulted in being disconnected, receiving a message that said the que for holding was full and to call back later and, after holding for 10 minutes, being told via message to call back during regular business hours.
The dedicated number to make a vaccine appointment is (855) 473-4374.
According to several reports, Georgia ranks last among states for the share of available COVID-19 vaccines that it has administered, but Gov. Brian Kemp said on Friday the data is misleading as some hospitals have failed to report all the shots they've given.
Still, the Republican governor acknowledged that the state is struggling with the vaccine rollout that has become his primary focus even as Georgia sets daily records for people hospitalized with the respiratory illness.
"Look, I’m not happy with it," Kemp told reporters after giving an update on the state's vaccine rollout. “I’m pleased with how hard everybody’s working, but I’m not happy with where we are, we got to keep moving the needle. We’re working on that every single day.”
Kemp said the state now has the capacity to administer 11,428 doses a day. At that rate, it would take more than two-and-a-half years to vaccinate every Georgia resident.
“Some of it is due to poor planning and execution of a mass vaccination strategy, if Georgia ever actually had one,” wrote Amber Schmidtke, an epidemiologist who reports daily on Georgia's outbreak. “Instead, the responsibility for vaccinating a population of 10.6 million people has been pushed down to 18 underfunded public health districts, operating with a skeleton crew.”
The governor reiterated that he won't impose any new restrictions, saying he felt other states that had cracked down on activities like indoor dining and bars haven't fared any better.
“We've had other states that enacted new restrictions and their hospitals are still overflowing,” Kemp said.
Trying to improve process
Elsewhere in the state, a message at the top of the North Central Health District's website said it was experiencing an extremely high volume of calls for COVID-19 vaccination appointments and understood people's “frustration.” It said it was working with the company that manages its call line to try to improve the process.
Meanwhile, the Cobb & Douglas Public Health website was down due to a server issue, spokeswoman Valerie Crow said in an email.
And the North Georgia Health District's server became overloaded due to high volumes of people trying to schedule vaccine appointments online, said spokeswoman Jennifer King. She said it was uncertain when the website would be back up.
The district was asking people to call its hotline and to "please be patient if they experience delays getting through,” King said in an email.
The Georgia Department of Public Health is working to make it easier to schedule appointments and to distribute the vaccine more efficiently, but is asking the public to be patient, the agency said in a statement.
“This is a heavy logistical lift, complicated by limited doses of available vaccine, and the resources needed for safe administration,” the statement said. “Many providers throughout the state have vaccine, but are still vaccinating their own staffs and patients, and are not yet able to vaccinate the public.”
Before Monday, the vaccine was available to health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. The state has now opened up access to law enforcement, firefighters and first responders in addition to people over 65.