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Georgia public health infrastructure wasn’t ready for this

Georgia National Guard members helping administer COVID-19tests in Decatur in this April, 2020 file photo. (Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Tori Miller.) Georgia National Guard members helping administer COVID-19tests in Decatur in this April, 2020 file photo. (Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Tori Miller.)

By Maggie Lee

COVID confusion is not just for regular folks trying to get the vaccine. The state of Georgia and the feds are not on the same page either.

For example, Georgia’s computer system for disease surveillance is great, state-of-the-art, but was designed for something completely different — more than 10 years ago.

“That worked beautifully for tracking 80 cases of Legionella disease … or the 18 cases of measles we had last year,” said Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey on Tuesday morning.

“It was not able to easily track and continue to monitor what has now become almost 700,000 cases of COVID.  That’s just the confirmed cases,” she said.

And it’s only one example of how the infrastructure of public health in Georgia was not ready for a pandemic.

Toomey also complained that both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the New York Times were reporting incorrect, low vaccination numbers for Georgia.

“We’ve actually given 451,169 doses,” she said Tuesday morning.

At that moment, DPH’s website said 423,011 vaccines had been administered; it hadn’t been updated since the day before.

She also said that supply from the feds was unpredictable.

“We literally don’t know week-to-week what our allocation will be,” Toomey said at what was a regular annual hearing on her budget, and which turned into mainly the delivery of a COVID-19 update.

Toomey and her boss, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, have given press conferences throughout the pandemic. And Kemp himself — while sticking to diplomatic language — has hinted that there’s ambiguity higher up the vaccine supply chain.

Like back on Dec. 31, 2020, Kemp said, “We actually got 120,000 doses of vaccine this week.  We don’t know what we’ll get next week, but you have to assume the supply chain is going to keep coming.”

Some high-ranking Democrats in other states have made loud, public complaints about vaccine rollout addressed straight to President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.  The Washington Post has broke rattling news last week that many state officials felt misled by the feds about a vaccine “stockpile” that doesn’t exist.

Azar has blamed states for bottlenecks, denying federal problems. But anyway, he’s going out the door as of Wednesday, along with the rest of the Trump administration.

Back in Georgia on Tuesday, Toomey said at the rate Georgia is going, it will take months to get folks vaccinated.  Georgia is counting on federal funds, and it will have to open mass vaccination sites and it will need the assistance of volunteers and others.

“We hope that will happen soon, with the availability of new vaccine,” Toomey said.

Many Georgians are turning to Facebook groups, Nextdoor and other informal means to try and track down vaccine appointments. County health departments are supposed to take a lead on helping people get appointments; in practice, their websites and capacity haven’t been able to hold up.

A new state website provides a little more guidance to residents — but only in the form of a list of links to pharmacies, health departments, other providers, and the websites of Kroger, Publix and Ingles.

Technically, dealing with public health, Toomey said, there are district health directors who report to her as well as independent county boards of public health, which results in some “ambiguity” about who’s in charge of public health.

Every health district is different and the system is “not completely conducive to a unified command system,” Toomey said.

Local public health offices provide residents things like immunizations, vital records and maternal health care, among other services. The State Department of Public Health is Georgia’s agency for overseeing those things and tracking infectious diseases, and studying the large-scale causes of and spread of health-related events.  Like pandemics.

In his spending plans for the next 17 months, Kemp proposes no major change — up or down — to DPH’s budget.

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Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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