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COVID-19 vaccine headed for nursing homes as positive cases soar in Georgia
Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (right) gave updates on COVID-19 vaccine distribution and the worsening winter outbreak alongside Gov. Brian Kemp (left) at Emory University’s Woodruff Health Sciences Center in Atlanta on Dec. 22. - photo by Beau Evans, Capitol Beat News Service

Seniors and staff in Georgia’s nursing homes are set to start receiving COVID-19 vaccines next week as positive cases continue increasing across the state amid the winter holidays, Gov. Brian Kemp and other officials said Tuesday.

Elderly-care facility residents who have been among the hardest hit since the pandemic sparked in March should start receiving doses Monday of a vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company Moderna, the second vaccine to roll out so far in Georgia.

The vaccine boost comes as Georgia continues to see a spike in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during the winter holiday season. Georgia reported its highest-ever daily case number of 6,242 positive cases on Tuesday, said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

The worsening winter outbreak has prompted officials to open 60 intensive-care beds at the Georgia World Congress Center starting next week in preparation for peaking capacity at local hospitals, Kemp said. He urged Georgians to take caution this week as families and friends gather for Christmas.

“This long battle, as long as it’s been, we know it is coming to an end with this vaccine before us,” Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday. “But that being said, we cannot let up.

“We have to continue to focus on celebrating safely to get us through the holidays as normally and as quickly as possible so that we can continue the methodical reopening of our economy and weathering this COVID-19 storm until we can get everyone in our state vaccinated.”

State officials expect to receive 174,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine in the initial distribution phase, adding to the roughly 125,000 doses Georgia has received so far of the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

Workers at local hospitals and health departments in Georgia have been first in line to be vaccinated following federal approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines this month. Officials are pushing to vaccinate all the state’s health-care workers sometime in January.

About 20,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine should be in next Monday’s shipment to elderly-care facility residents and staff.  The Moderna vaccine can be stored at less-cold temperatures than the Pfizer vaccine.

“We are seeing a miracle of modern science happen right before our eyes,” Kemp said Tuesday. “And it is well needed, I’ll tell you.”

Roughly 95% of the state’s elderly-care facilities have signed up since October to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and have providers arrive on-site to administer doses to residents and staff, Toomey said.

Hundreds of health-care facilities, clinics, primary-care physicians and pharmacists have signaled to state officials their willingness to receive the vaccine and administer doses in the coming months.

With vaccines rolling out now for hospitals and elderly-care facilities, Toomey said she anticipates workers in critical jobs like Georgia’s school teachers should start receiving the vaccine in February.

The vaccine likely will not be widely available to the general public until summer 2021, officials have said. An online dashboard has been created to track progress on the vaccine’s distribution.

“With now the Moderna vaccine, we can literally cover the state in vaccination,” Toomey said.

Like Pfizer’s vaccine, the Moderna vaccine was developed using new technology that mimics the virus’ DNA to create immunity, not by injecting small amounts of virus as has traditionally been done with vaccines. That method helped developers produce the vaccine within months instead of years.

Clinical trials showed both vaccines have mild side effects like temporary arm pain and under-the-weather feelings. Emory University in Atlanta oversaw trials of the Moderna vaccine with thousands of local participants, including a large number from minority communities.

Ahead of the wider rollout, officials and health experts are urging Georgians to trust in the vaccine’s safety and to get vaccinated as soon as they can to better halt COVID-19’s spread.

“Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do,” said Emory Healthcare CEO Dr. Jonathan Lewin. “As soon as you have the opportunity to receive the vaccine, please be sure to do that.”

More than 500,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. As of Tuesday, the virus had killed 9,503 Georgians.