AUGUSTA, Ga. – Augusta and other large cities got a boost in their COVID-19 vaccinations numbers this week after a state cleanup of data prompted by The Augusta Chronicle. Augusta’s numbers would probably look even better if they included the nearly 19,000 shots given out by the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, which has pursued an aggressive strategy to vaccinate veterans and staff.
Even with better numbers, Augusta providers are facing decreasing demand and are starting to look at new ways to gets shots into arms.
Richmond and Columbia counties both saw a big boost in numbers from the previous week, with Richmond adding 15,651 shots and Columbia with 13,742 more. The rates for both counties jumped up, with Richmond County moving from 18% of adults having received at least one shot to 24% and Columbia County increasing from 22% to 28%. Fully vaccinated rates increased for both, from 16% to 19% in Richmond and from 19% to 22% for Columbia. Most of Georgia’s other metro areas saw similar boosts in numbers, lead by 218,460 added in Fulton County and 145,771 more in DeKalb County, according to Chronicle analysis.
Altogether, Richmond, Columbia and the other seven Georgia metro areas saw a 501,908-dose increase over last week, more than the 470,662 total doses the state reported giving in the past week.
The difference can be attributed to a data cleanup by the Georgia Department of Public Health. After noticing a discrepancy between county and statewide numbers, the Chronicle asked the state about the number of doses given but not assigned to a particular county. Georgia Public Health later replied that it was doing some “process improvements” and “were able to assign vaccines to county of residence that had previously been listed as unknown,” spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said. Even with that, about 780,000 are listed in the statewide numbers that are still not included in any county’s total, she said.
VA numbers aren’t included
Augusta’s numbers would also likely benefit if the state could include those doses given at Charlie Norwood VA. As of Wednesday, the Augusta VA had given 18,745 doses, including fully vaccinating 15,555 veterans and 1,902 employees, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That means 43% of the veterans in its service area have received at least one dose and it covers more than 75% of its staff, the Augusta VA said.
“We’ve made it our No. 1 mission to ensure that everybody that was ready and willing for a vaccine had the opportunity through staffing clinics and outreach programs,” said Dr. Jennifer Blanchard, chief of pharmacy at Charlie Norwood VA. “We’ve really worked hard since the vaccine became available in December to get our veterans in and get them vaccinated.”
Veteran Michael Harrison, 61, came back to the Uptown Division of the Augusta VA for his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Wednesday. He said it was not an easy decision to get the first one.
“I debated about it and prayed about it but I felt like it would be the best thing for me to do,” he said.
There are likely a lot of people like him in Richmond and Columbia counties who got their vaccine through the Augusta VA. There were 18,374 veterans in Richmond, or 9.1% of its population, and 17,438 veterans in Columbia, 11.3% of the population, according to 2019 estimates from the Census Bureau.
But those numbers are not included in either county’s total or in the state’s either, Blanchard said.
“Right now we don’t have a sharing agreement for this type of information,” with the state, she said, although it is being talked about at the national level. With similarly high levels of vaccination at the VAs in Atlanta and Dublin, that would be 65,434 more shots to add to Georgia and to county totals, according to the VA.
“The state of Georgia would see some higher numbers,” Blanchard said. “That’s probably something that needs to be looked at nationally, how they want to share that information.”
Vaccine demand declining
Georgia currently has the sixth-worst rate of vaccination per 100,000 population, an improvement from recent standings when it was third-worst, ahead of only Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas, according to tracking data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite that, University Hospital has seen some declining demand for its mass vaccination clinics in recent weeks, said Dr. Ioana Chirca, medical director for infectious diseases, infection control and microbial stewardship for University.
“We have definitely seen a slowdown in the influx of people who want to get vaccinated,” she said.
AU Health System has faced similar drops for its clinics and leaders are starting to rethink the strategy for getting more people vaccinated, said Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer at AU Health. They are starting to look at making it more available through routine interactions, when people show up for other appointments, or perhaps are picking up a prescription. A provider might look at a patient’s chart and say, “I notice you haven’t been vaccinated, do you want to get vaccinated for COVID?” Coule said. What has made that tough is the desire not to waste any doses, which is difficult to avoid when a vial holds six shots of Pfizer vaccine or 10 of Moderna’s, and there is a time limit on when the doses must be used, he said.
“It’s tough to predict, given that setting, how many doses you would use,” Coule said. “We’re trying to sort through how we do that best.”
But even if vaccination rates haven’t risen to the level needed, there is also a certain level of immunity in the unvaccinated population among those who have been infected, some of whom may not have developed symptoms and may not know it, Chirca said.
“When you’re looking at vaccination rates, that’s a good way to look at things because that’s all we really have,” she said. “But probably the immunity in the community is higher than what you see reflected in the vaccination rates.”