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Augusta vaccinators turn their attention to the young as the pace slows



AUGUSTA, Ga. – When Takiyah Williams, 19, of Grovetown was asked why she was getting vaccinated against COVID-19, she cut her eyes at her mother, Tasha.

“I told her she needed to get it,” Tasha Williams said, as she sat next to her daughter at AU Health System’s Washington Square shopping center clinic, after both got their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. “I am thinking it is best for us to be protected.”

The challenge health officials have is now getting more younger folks like her vaccinated, including now 12-15 year-olds, as well as picking up others who have yet to get access or to accept it.

It comes as vaccinations are slowing down and more of the doses given are second shots. Georgia saw a 27.66% decline in shots given over the past week, according to an analysis by The Augusta Chronicle. And in Richmond and Columbia counties, and across the state, most of those shots – 68.78% for both counties and for the state – were second doses to help someone get fully vaccinated and were not new people showing up to receive vaccine, the analysis found.

“Whether we look at the national numbers, the statewide numbers or the local numbers, there has been a precipitous decline since April 10-11, primarily from not seeing demand in our younger age groups,” said Dr. Joshua Wyche, assistant vice president of strategic planning and pharmacy services at AU Health System.

East Central Health District based in Augusta has been feeling that decline as well, particularly at its large clinic at the old Craig Houghton school, said Director Stephen Goggans. So the district has been shifting to do more mobile clinics, sending out two-person teams to vaccinate at various sites around the community.

“We have begun to shift our emphasis to mobile and outreach operations where we go to people with the vaccine rather than having them come to us,” Goggans said. That could be work sites or apartment complexes or faith-based organizations such as the Islam Society of Augusta. The district has also reached out to partners and providers to try to reach underserved populations, such as Augusta Rescue Mission in an effort to vaccinate the homeless, Goggans said.

“The thing about mobile is almost regardless of the barrier, it tends to overcome it,” he said. Often, when a clinic is set up at a site, people who had not planned to get vaccinated that day may walk up and decide to do it then, Goggans said. The state is also trying to reach those who are homebound and the district has a hotline for people to call and sign up, he said.

But now there is a new population to try and reach since Pfizer vaccine was given Emergency Use Authorization for those ages 12-15. Some of that has already begun in Georgia.

“We’ve actually done some Pfizer vaccine in that group already,” Goggans said. It will take a new outreach strategy to reach that group, particularly as a new school year approaches in the fall.

“I believe we are going to be targeting kids, partly over the summer, in camps or sports or various ways we might try,” he said. “And then I anticipate a bigger push in a Back-to-School setting.”

What would make that easier would be if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would allow other vaccinations to be given at the same time, which would require a rule change, Goggans said.

“We’d like to get all of their vaccinations at one appointment, if possible,” he said.

AU Health plans to begin offering vaccinations to younger kids at its Washington Square clinic next week and is planning how to handle doing more in its pediatric clinics, Wyche said. The problem becomes potentially wasting doses. Even if a couple of parents consent to getting their kids vaccinated on a particular day, “that doesn’t utilize that entire vial,” he said. A Pfizer vial has six doses, and once opened is good for about six hours, or essentially a clinic day, Wyche said.

“So there is a fine balance there of what is acceptable,” he said.