Rep. Hank Johnson offers pandemic update in virtual town hall

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson

DeKalb County, GA — Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia’s 4th Congressional District on Jan. 30 gathered public health and policy experts to offer an update on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

“It’s an extreme emergency, this COVID 19 pandemic. The virus is out of control. Variants are emerging, 436,000 Americans have lost their lives and almost 26 million have been infected. It’s very serious,” said Johnson.

Johnson said that Operation Warp Speed was successful in that two vaccines were expedited through the approval process, but when Biden took office he discovered there was no distribution plan for the vaccine.

Clint Odom, Senior Policy Director for the National Urban League, stated that President Biden’s initial goal is to give 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days.

“The United States has in fact reserved enough doses to vaccinate 555 million people, more people than there are in the United States. That comes out to about 169% of the population. Should those manufacturers successfully develop those vaccines, the United States will have more than enough to serve every person in the United States,” said Odom.  Biden has ordered 200 million doses each of the existing Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, as well as reserving doses of vaccines currently in the process of being approved.

Odom said that the current distribution plan is based on risk of complications and likelihood of contracting and transmitting the disease. Here’s the state’s current vaccination plan. Currently, the state of Georgia is in phase 1A.

Image obtained from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Odom warned that there is a large shortfall between the money that is currently available for a vaccination program and what will be needed.

“The CDC has allocated about $200 million to states to support their vaccination efforts, and are going to provide another $140 million, but states are estimating that it’s going to cost about $8.4 billion to launch a comprehensive vaccination effort,” said Odom.

Odom stated that there were logistical challenges in that states have not known how many vaccines they will be receiving, which makes it difficult to plan. President Biden recently announced that his administration is committing to distribute 10 million doses per week allocated according to population so that states will be able to make reliable decisions.

Dr. Sandra Elizabeth Ford, Health Director for the DeKalb County Board of Health, stated that so far Georgia has distributed approximately 875,000 doses . DeKalb County has distributed about 13,000 doses.

Dr. Ford said that the biggest obstacle was limited supply. The state of Georgia receives 80,000 doses per week, distributed throughout the state.

The current supply available is far below the demand.

“Last week for the entire week the Board of Health received 100 vaccines. That is about an hour’s work.  I just got an email last night that we have another thousand doses allocated for next week.  That’s one day’s work,” said Ford. Meanwhile demand is very high. She said that when 1,480 appointments recently opened in DeKalb, they were gone in 55 minutes.

Ford added that they were adding call center capacity so that lack of computer access would not be a barrier for seniors. She said that a state wide system to register and issue vaccines is in process, but currently each district is managing their own.  She said her department is trying to address vaccine reluctance by making the process as easy as possible.

Ford emphasized that the biggest holdup is lack of supply.  In addition to the Board of Health’s normal capacity to administer 1,000 vaccines per day, community volunteers and plans are ready to do mass vaccinations whenever the supply becomes available. Community members will also be able to get vaccines through drug stores and other businesses. Doctor’s offices can apply to become distributors of the vaccine if they have not done so already.

Ford and Amanda Hollowell,  Director of Strategic Campaigns for Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, discussed racial disparities in vaccine distribution.

“This county is 65% African American. Currently, 70% of the people who have received the vaccine in this county are white. It doesn’t make sense,” said Ford.

Hollowell said that there was some degree of distrust or anxiety about the vaccine, but that there were also practical barriers in terms of accessibility and transportation.  She said that the vaccine distribution programs that should theoretically overcome those barriers were underfunded.

“It should be free, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Hollowell.

Johnson said that the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion relief package that President Biden has proposed, will provide funds to states for vaccination programs as well as relief for individuals and small businesses.  He said he hoped it would be passed out of Congress in the next couple of weeks   “Help is on the way, is what I’m saying,” said Johnson.

The Biden administration is also taking steps to increase the supply of vaccines. Johnson said that it will take time but that seventy percent of the US population can be vaccinated by the end of summer.

“We’ve probably got another six months of continuing to live like this.  Don’t give up.  We can get through it. The end of the pandemic is in sight,” said Johnson.

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