Facing Slow Rollout of Vaccines, Georgia Counties Pool Resources

Three counties in northwest Georgia are running a regional vaccine facility as the area sees worsening Covid-19 numbers and the state struggles to get doses in arms.

Catoosa County Coroner James Spurling delivers a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-thru facility in Ringgold, Ga., last week. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

RINGGOLD, Ga. (CN) — The people giving out Covid-19 vaccines under the tents at a Georgia civic center turned regional vaccine facility are a mix: EMS students, retired nurses and firefighters, to name a few.

They say they have vaccinated thousands of their neighbors drive-thru style in the cold and rain and they plan to continue to do so in the coming Georgia heat, reaching in cars with either the Pfizer or Moderna shots. Even as they expand hours to make it easier for people to get vaccinated, they’ve had to pause for an afternoon when thunderstorms threatening tornadoes rolled through a few days back.

Residents of three counties work the site a few miles from the Georgia-Tennessee state line: staffing a hotline, directing traffic, checking people in, cooking meals. Steve Quinn, director of emergency management for Catoosa County, said on a slow day they administer about 800 shots.

As data shows the area’s Covid-19 hospitalizations are on the rise, those running the facility in Ringgold say their effort is the way for the area to return to normalcy. Currently, Georgia has one of the slowest rollouts of Covid-19 vaccines in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this vaccine site is a unique effort in the 10-county region of northwest Georgia, and possibly for the whole state, according to Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District spokesperson Logan Boss, as it is a collaboration between three counties.

Vanita Hullander, a commissioner in Catoosa County, handed out vaccination record cards one rainy afternoon last week wearing a bright pink windbreaker. It was a slow day as rain ran down the tents where drivers checked in and then proceeded to get the shots. Cars came in twos and threes.

The drive-thru vaccination site allows the county to move residents through the line quickly and makes it easier for those with mobility issues to avoid standing in line, said Hullander, a retired paramedic.

“It attracts a group that would normally not take the time just to come and get out of their car, go in the building,” Hullander said. “So they say this is better than Wendy’s.”

In mid-March, Georgia’s rollout was in last place among the states due to sluggishly opened mass vaccination sites and expanded vaccine eligibility, according to Sarah McCool, a public health professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Catoosa County Commissioner Vanita Hullander volunteers at a regional vaccination site that is a collaboration between three Georgia counties. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

A study released March 9 by the university shows that groups administering Covid-19 vaccines can increase the rate of vaccinations by making the vaccine easier to take among “hard-to-reach populations” and help with communicating to boost education and trust.

Back in January, the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners sent a letter to Republican Governor Brian Kemp and state health commissioner Kathleen Toomey asking for more vaccines.

“[At] the current rate of vaccine distribution in Catoosa County and the surrounding area, it would take a year or more for us to provide the level of protection that our community needs,” the Jan. 20 letter said.

The letter added the area had enough personnel from three counties to administer additional vaccines and The Colonnade, Catoosa County’s civic center, would have enough space. Catoosa County has been joined in the effort by Dade and Walker counties.

Altogether, there are about 150,000 residents in the three counties, according to U.S. Census data collected in 2019.

Catoosa County Commission Chair Steven Henry, a homebuilder, said with residents easily traveling from county to county, it made sense to collaborate.

“I feel like we always get more done if we do it together than we do buttin’ heads. I mean, why compete?” Henry said.

He said the county bought a cold storage freezer for the Pfizer vaccine because there was such a demand for the more easily handled Moderna vaccine.

On March 25, Georgia opened eligibility to all residents 16 and older. That same day, Catoosa County announced it was opening up its vaccination site – which it had operated since late January – as a regional site serving three counties.

Boss, spokesperson for DPH’s northwest district, said the vaccination center is a “fairly unique effort” in the 10-county district, and he has not heard of any similar collaborations in any other areas of the state. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency operates nine mass vaccination sites in the state, but the closest one is in Bartow County, more than an hour drive for Georgians living in the northwestern corner.

A firefighter prepares to administer a dose of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-thru facility in Ringgold, Ga. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

“In northwest Georgia … for the first two months of the vaccine rollout, the vaccine supply was very erratic and totally inadequate to meet demand,” Boss said, adding the supply has improved in the last few weeks.

Catoosa County’s vaccination center opened up just as cases of Covid-19 are seemingly ticking upward again from a dramatic fall in cases after the winter holidays. Although Boss said the department doesn’t know exactly why, it could be due to variants of the coronavirus.

Amber Schmidtke, who worked for the CDC in Atlanta and is a former assistant professor of microbiology at the Mercer University School of Medicine, said there has been a rising number of patients in northwest Georgia hospitalized for Covid-19 — about 13% of all patients — which is something to watch at the moment.

At the same time, Schmidtke, who writes about the data surrounding Covid-19 in Georgia in an email newsletter, wrote on Monday the state has administered about 4.2 million doses and still has an inventory of 2 million. While this still places Georgia among the states with the slowest rollout, Schmidtke said the situation is improving.

Generally speaking, Schmidtke said there’s an influx of the vaccine in southern Georgia while it’s harder to get the shot in the northern half of the state. Recently, she’s noticed there has been more interaction between local governments and community organizations when it comes to administering doses, as opposed to, say, administration by the National Guard.

“That’s kind of great when you think about it, because those are the people that are more likely to be trusted by that community,” Schmidtke said.

According to Catoosa County Commissioner Chuck Harris, the county never closed restaurants or instituted a mask mandate. The neighboring Hamilton County, Tennessee, did institute a mask mandate, which is scheduled to expire at the end of April.

“As board of commissioners, we made a conscientious effort to maintain the rights of the adults to pick and choose for themselves,” Harris said.

But he said the county generally came out of the pandemic in better financial shape with higher tax revenue. The main cities in the county – the former Army base Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold – both shut down indoor dining for a time within their city limits.

Getting vaccines in residents’ arms is critical, Harris said. “Once we get this done, I mean this is truly a community effort, once we get it done, then we’re going to get back to normal,” he said.

A few weeks ago, officials with the state health department visited the site after hearing of the unusual collaboration. According to Harris, the visit prompted a commitment from the state to provide the center with as many vaccine doses as it needed.

As people who want to get the vaccine get appointments for the shot, Joe Legge, public information officer for Walker County, said that vaccine hesitancy is something that may become an issue in a couple weeks. He has prepared a couple videos to combat suspicion and encourage people to get the shot.

The three counties sit in the heart of the Bible Belt and a recent study by Pew Research Center found about 45% of white evangelicals say they will not get a Covid-19 vaccine.

A sheet of stickers being handed out at the northwest Georgia vaccination center in Ringgold. (Daniel Jackson/Courthouse News)

At the vaccine site, Catoosa County’s public information officer John Pless gathered video footage for short PSAs he was posting on the county’s Facebook page that featured members of the community.

One person who recorded a video was the Reverend Danny Henson, who retired from pastoring in December 2019 after leading churches in the area for about three decades.  

From the people he’s talked to, the Southern Baptist pastor said he’s heard concern about the newness of the vaccine. But as a pastor, Henson decided the vaccine was the right and responsible thing to do and though he does not use social media himself, he hopes the video does some good.

Growing up, he remembers getting the vaccine for polio in elementary school and then getting a second dose on a sugar cube at the local health department. That disease and smallpox — “those two things have been eradicated practically in this country,” Henson said.

As cars rolled through the vaccination center last Wednesday, Pless helped one driver take a photo. He handed out stickers he had developed and explained to drivers these stickers are like the ones voters get after they cast their ballots.

On the same line, Catoosa County Coroner James Spurling helped administer the vaccine. He had tucked a couple syringes of Moderna into a chest pocket on his florescent safety vest in case a car pulls up with several people inside.

He has investigated 40 deaths so far this year, but estimated he delivered thousands of vaccine doses. He’s qualified to administer shots, he said, and as coroner he is tasked with preventing deaths so he heads over to the civic center when he’s free.

Citing the high rate of immunity the Pfizer and Moderna shots give people “against a virus that’s killing people,” Spurling said, “It’s hard not to be involved in that.”

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