AUGUSTA, Ga. – Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan waited to recuperate from a knee replacement before he got his first shot of COVID-19 vaccine on Monday and he believes there were others like him who were hanging back.
“More of us need to take the vaccine,” said Hasan, who wanted his shot to send that message. There are many in Richmond County who have yet to hear it.
Augusta appears to trail most of the other metro areas in Georgia in getting people vaccinated as local providers say they are already having a hard time getting people to come to clinics and get the shots. The numbers might be a little misleading because they do not include doses given at long-term care facilities or take into account other big vaccinators, such as the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and other federal providers, health officials said.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Dashboard, Augusta trails almost every other metro area in terms of both getting people a single dose, at just 18%, and in those who are fully vaccinated at 16%. Only Columbus/Muscogee County is worse at 17% and 14% respectively while Albany/Dougherty County leads the way at 26% and 22%, with Savannah/Chatham County not far behind at 25% and 22%.
Overall, Georgia has had 34% of its adults receive one dose and 23% are fully vaccinated with more than 5.8 million doses given. The state is still the third-worst in terms of doses given by population at 56,619 per 100,000 people, ahead of only Alabama and Mississippi, according to tracking data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Augusta’s poor showing stands in contrast to the tens of thousands of doses that have been given in large clinics through AU Health System, University Hospital and a drive-through clinic run by Georgia Public Health. AU Health has administered 67,000 doses and University has given 26,000, although those totals include doses for South Carolina residents. “What we’re seeing is that although Augusta is serving as a vaccine hub for the area we still have a significant population in Richmond County in particular that is falling behind in terms of getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer for AU Health.
And it comes despite large, ongoing clinics every week, said Reyne Gallup, Chief Operating Officer for Acute Care Services for University.
“We’re seeing a change actually in having more vaccine available than people willing to sign up for shots,” she said. “We’ve had clinics with 800 spots open and we don’t have those filled. In our community, not many people are signing up.”
Both University and AU Health are stepping up outreach efforts. University has a big clinic at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Thursday so “we’re going to the community around that and asking church members to do the same to get more people signed up for that clinic on Thursday,” Gallup said. AU Health is opening up a clinic in south Augusta at Diamond Lakes Regional Park in part to address that, Coule said. AU Health and University have also opened their clinics to walk-ins.
“We prefer that people make an appointment but we are accommodating walk-ins on a limited basis,” Coule said.
University will be holding a new clinic at Augusta Technical College on May 14 and will get vaccine to its primary care offices and providers by the end of May, which will increase the number of places people can receive it, Gallup said.
But part of the problem is hesitancy, particularly with younger people. Health officials always knew they would reach a point where people who are eager to get the vaccine would and then they would need to reach out to those with questions and concerns, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.
“We really need to meet people where they are and understand why they are hesitant,” she said. The White House respects that people make decisions in their own way and in their own timeframe but is encouraging people to seek those answers, said Andy Slavitt, Senior Advisor for COVID-19 Response.
“Talk to your doctor, talk to your pharmacist,” he said. “Talk to people you trust.”
University is hearing from its primary care providers that “the 30-50 age range is leery about taking the vaccine,” Gallup said.
AU Health is considering webinars, information sessions and just trying to make vaccine more convenient, Coule said.
“We believe that there’s that group of people who are not vaccine-resistant, they’re just hesitant,” he said. “I think what we’re going to have to do is overcome barriers that are related to that little bit of hesitation.”
Hasan said some people may think they don’t need to get vaccinated because the pandemic is over but it’s not.
“I think the community needs to understand that we are not out of the woods yet,” he said.
The state’s numbers should include those who got vaccinated through federal sites, although their reporting is “inconsistent at best,” said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for Georgia Public Health. It is unclear if Augusta’s number includes doses at Fort Gordon or the Department of Veterans Affairs. Charlie Norwood VA has fully vaccinated nearly 17,000 people, including more than 15,000 veterans and over 1,800 employees, although that would include residents outside Augusta.
“We have a very heavy federal presence here and a lot of veterans,” Coule said, which would throw off the area’s numbers if they are not counted.
COVID-19 VACCINE CLINICS THIS WEEK
Both University Hospital and AU Health System will be holding large COVID-19 vaccination clinics with appointments available.
AU Health is opening a new clinic from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Robert Howard Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park. To register, go to https://covid.augustahealth.org/vaccine/
University Hospital will have a clinic Thursday at Tabernacle Baptist Church, 1223 Laney-Walker Blvd. To register, go to: https://uhcs-pfizer-covid-clinic-16-plus.eventbrite.com