How will Georgia distribute the coronavirus vaccine?

Georgia is gearing up to distribute the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to health-care workers and the state’s elderly residents in the coming weeks once federal officials approve the vaccines for emergency use.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday he expects health-care workers and nursing home residents in the state to start receiving vaccines in the second or third week of December, noting several state agencies have been preparing to move quickly on distribution as soon as the initial vaccine shipments arrive.

“Obviously, that timeline could change, but that is what we’re shooting for right now,” Kemp said at a meeting with local nursing home administrators.

“I’m confident that when the vaccine is authorized … that we will be ready to distribute that,” he added.

Kemp also relaxed certain red-tape state rules Monday to allow nurses and pharmacists to administer the new COVID-19 vaccines and to let people receive the vaccines in their vehicles via drive-thru services.

Two vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna showed unexpectedly good results in recent clinical trials and are now poised for emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The federal government is leaving it to governors and other state officials to hash out plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccine doses in their respective states, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention giving guidance on which populations to prioritize like health-care workers, first responders, elderly persons and those with chronic health conditions.

Between 30 million and 40 million vaccine doses could be available by January with emergency federal approval, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset in March.

The general public should expect to have access to COVID-19 vaccines sometime between May and July of 2021 after officials have prioritized more vulnerable populations, he said.

“The most important thing is we need to allocate the vaccine in such a way that we rapidly bring down mortality and hospitalizations from this disease,” Del Rio said at a news conference Monday.

Amid high hopes for ending the pandemic, Georgia officials still need to figure out how to hand out millions of doses across the state while keeping the vaccine stored at low temperatures that may require purchasing new refrigeration equipment, Del Rio said.

Hospitals and long-term elderly care facilities also face a daunting few months ahead as outbreaks of the virus flare up in Georgia and short-handed staff who have battled the pandemic since March feel fatigue.

Several local nursing homes noted at Monday’s meeting with Kemp that while the state has helped prop up staffing levels with federal relief money, many facilities continue struggling to both fend off viral transmissions and provide everyday care for their elderly residents after losing employees early during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be dealing with it for another six months,” said Neil Pruitt, chairman and CEO of PruittHealth.

Positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have risen in Georgia since October as officials and public-health experts worry a larger spike could come amid the winter holiday season. As of Monday, more than 422,000 Georgians had tested positive for the virus and 8,778 had died.

Kemp urged people Monday to keep up safe distancing, masking and hand-washing habits despite the temptation to let their guard down with vaccines on the horizon.

“We’ve got to remain vigilant [and] keep our foot on the gas,” Kemp said.

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