Gov. Kemp lets teachers, some with health issues get vaccines in Georgia

ATLANTA – Preschool and K-12 school employees, adults with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers and parents of children with complex medical conditions will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Georgia starting March 8.

Gov. Brian Kemp made the announcement Thursday, saying newly eligible people can start signing up Friday at www.MyVaccineGeorgia.com.

“While vaccine supplies have been so limited, vaccine had to be prioritized to those who are most vulnerable,” the Republican governor said. “Our team feels confident we will continue to see steady increases in our allotment over the next several weeks.”

Kemp said that he will expand eligibility later in March to more people with high-risk health conditions.

Until now, Georgia has restricted vaccinations to people 65 and older, as well as emergency workers, health care workers, and employees and staff of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. All those people will still be eligible.

Kemp has faced pressure to open vaccinations to people with disabilities and frontline workers such as those who work in poultry processing plants. In deciding which teachers could get doses, he chose to allow child care workers and K-12 school employees and teachers to be vaccinated, but said that college teachers wouldn’t be eligible for now.

Georgia has administered nearly 1.9 million doses, according to state Department of Public Health data. The state says that more than 800,000 people 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Kemp estimates the new populations made eligible will include at least 1 million more people.

The state is likely to hit 1 million test-indicated COVID-19 infections in the next day or two and crossed 17,000 confirmed and probable deaths Wednesday.

Kemp followed the announcement with a forceful call for all local school districts to reopen for face-to-face instruction five days a week, although the governor said he wouldn’t order it.

“Virtual schooling is leaving too many children behind,” Kemp said. “We must have every student back in the classroom five days a week statewide. Moving forward, we cannot delay full in-person learning any longer. Our children cannot afford to wait until fall.”

Almost all Georgia districts are offering at least some in-person classes. With classrooms in Clarke, Clay, Dooly, DeKalb and Quitman counties reopening for face-to-face students next month, only a few districts including Clayton and Sumter counties won’t be offering any in-person instruction. However, some other districts are offering in-person classes less than five days a week.

Mike McGowan, the chief of staff in the 46,000-student Cherokee County school district, said he hoped his district would be able to obtain doses through the local public health department to directly hold vaccination clinics for the district’s 5,000 employees.

“We’re hoping it will reduce the spread of COVID,” said McGowan, who said the district has recorded more than 3,000 cases of the virus and has ordered people into quarantine more than 17,000 times since opening for in-person instruction in early August.

Unlike K-12 employees, child care providers might not be able to directly administer clinics. But Early Care and Learning Commissioner Amy Jacobs said her department would do everything it could to guide 65,000 employees of child care centers toward getting vaccinated. Although 98% of the state’s 4,500 licensed child care centers are open, a significant number of families are still keeping their children home, Jacobs said.

“Families need child care to go to work,” Jacobs said.

The state is currently receiving about 200,000 doses a week, although that could rise a little if federal officials give permission to use a third vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson. State officials said the weekly supply has risen 70% since mid-January.

Officials have said they expect vaccine supply to expand significantly in April. But opening the gates to many more groups could prompt a rush like the one that was seen when Kemp made everyone over 65 eligible in mid-January, when there were many complaints about the difficulty of scheduling an appointment.

“We will continue to see more demand than we have supply,” Kemp warned. “Appointments may continue to be hard to find and schedule.”