Phone lines slammed by high call volumes. Appointment slots filled into early spring. Providers navigating who should get shots first and worrying whether they’ll have access to booster doses.
Monday, the state of Georgia moved into phase 1a+ of COVID-19 vaccine administration, adding people aged 65 and older and first responders to the health care workers and long-term care residents and staff who already qualified for inoculation.
But high demand for the limited number of doses in the state quickly filled appointments at public health departments and health care providers large and small—some of which don’t have the supply to vaccinate the general public.
“The word ‘unprecedented’ is probably overplayed at this point. I think this is unlike anything most of us have encountered in our professional careers,” said Katie Logan, who is heading up the vaccination effort at Piedmont Healthcare.
The company, which runs 11 hospitals in the state, started booking vaccination appointments for this week last Friday. By Sunday night, all 5,000 slots had been filled.
Monday morning, Piedmont sent out a press release discouraging people from calling or showing up at its facilities in the hopes of getting inoculated.
“Please do not call or visit Piedmont locations unless you have an appointment,” the release read. “Calling or visiting without an appointment or many hours before your appointed time interferes with our ability to provide patient care at this critical time.”
Logan says Piedmont is only offering appointments to patients who have interacted with the health system in the last year and currently doesn’t have doses to offer the general public, though it hopes to in the future.
She says the health system–and other providers–got the approval to make the call about who to vaccinate first from the state.
“As long as we’re serving the population that’s been identified as part of the state’s approach, you could see people making different decisions,” Logan said.
But other large health systems seem to be making the same call.
Wellstar, which also runs 11 hospitals in Georgia, filled 10,000 appointments with current patients by the end of the day Monday.
It also sent out a press release aimed at letting the general public know it was fully booked.
“For those people in the community who are not Wellstar Primary Care patients … the [Georgia Department of Public Health] has launched a COVID-19 vaccination site location tool that allows users to search for vaccine providers across the state,” it reads.
That tool, which launched over the weekend, features contact information for local public health departments all over the state, some of which were inundated with phone calls from people looking to book appointments.
The North Central Health District, which serves 13 counties in central Georgia, took to Twitter before noon Monday asking for the public’s patience as its staff worked to handle the influx of requests.
“We are currently experiencing an extremely high call volume of calls to schedule COVID-19 vaccination appointments. We understand your frustration,” the tweet reads. “We are working with the company we use for the call line to try to improve this process.”
The health district that covers coastal Georgia warned last week that its phone lines couldn’t handle all the calls it was receiving about vaccines.
Monday morning, it shared via Twitter that most of its counties were booking appointments into March.
“We understand this may not be welcome news,” the health district said in a tweet.
The news may not be welcome, but it’s not totally unexpected. State officials have stressed that access to COVID-19 vaccinations for people in the expanded group 1a+ would be based on the number of doses locally available, which was likely to be limited.
Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp said the state only had the capacity to administer about 11,500 vaccine doses a day. At that pace, it would take years to inoculate every Georgian.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the state is last in the country for the number of vaccines administered for every 100,000 people.
And the pressures of improving that ranking don’t just fall on Georgia’s public health system or large hospital chains but community providers.
Ethne Health, a clinic in Clarkston, is prioritizing its doses for first responders, such as law enforcement officers, with plans to open up appointments to people over 65 later this week.
It’s one of the many small health care providers listed in the state’s vaccine database.
“This is a ton of responsibility to decide who gets the vaccine, said Dr. Andrew Kim, who works at the clinic. “It would be easier on us if there was a very straight, defined process, but because there isn’t we’re doing the best with the situation we’re in.”
Kim stresses that Ethne’s ability to offer vaccination is extremely limited. He says it’s already administered nearly all of its first allotment of 100 doses, and the clinic doesn’t know when it might get another batch.