ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — At one point early in the pandemic, Albany, Georgia was outpacing all but three cities across United States for coronavirus infections per capita. Now, the south Georgia city is home to one of four state-supported mass vaccination sites.
Many people in Albany were touched by coronavirus early on, but the city has made major strides since March’s tragedies. Thousands of people will be able to receive vaccinations in Albany’s Dougherty County starting Monday, Feb. 22, when the state’s four sites will open.
Christopher Cohilas, Chairman of Dougherty County Board of Commissioners, said the pummeling Albany took early on actually prepared the city to be ahead in the next phases of the virus. In the early spring, while other areas were just starting to identify initial cases, Albany was full steam ahead with a full panel of containment and treatment efforts.
“We had to sharpen our sword a lot faster, and a lot sharper than a lot of other folks did. And so sometimes through adversity, you build really strong partnerships,” he said.
He thinks this is part of why Albany was chosen as one of the initial mass vaccination sites.
“One, we work harder than anyone else. Two, we’ve been through more than anyone else. Three, we’ve made a very conscientious effort to partner with the governor’s office and Georgia Emergency Management Agency,” Cohilas said.
Albany’s mass vaccination site is located in a large gravel lot at the Albany Georgia Forestry Commission, 1150 West Oakridge Drive. On Friday, it was a flurry of activity as uniformed National Guard members, GEMA responders and medical staff prepared for Monday. Once the site opens, roughly 70 workers from various partner organizations will be at the site each day.
“It’s a really big deal for us here in Dougherty County,” Cohilas said.
The spot where the vaccination happens looks as if a toll plaza was placed inside a barn. Four lanes snake through a green warehouse and each one can fit four cars inside the building, meaning the site can vaccinate a maximum of 16 people at a time.
The state projects 1,100 vaccinations per site, per day, for a total of 22,000 vaccines per week. The whole process is 100% FEMA reimbursed, according to a fact sheet distributed during a media tour on Friday.
The other three sites are located in Bibb, Habersham and Fulton counties. The state is expected to open additional mass vaccination sites in the coming weeks and months, Gov. Brian Kemp said during a Thursday press conference.
The registration process for the mass vaccination sites is primarily handled through myvaccinegeorgia.com. The site is designed to be easy to use and mobile-friendly, an improvement from previous registration interfaces.
Eligible patients fill out a form online, then receive an email with instructions to schedule an appointment. Patients bring a QR code and a valid ID to the site, check in, get the vaccine, then move over to the observation lane for 15 minutes. There is no cost and insurance is not required. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, ASL interpreters will assist at the site.
Workers at the vaccination sites will use tablets to screen patients, record vaccinations and schedule appointments for second doses on the spot.
For patients who aren’t technologically savvy, there’s a phone number associated with each mass vaccination site where staff will guide patients through the registration process.
The Albany site is also trying to register as many patients as possible for their second dose before they leave their first appointment, said Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, GEMA/HS External Affairs Supervisor.
TACKLING VACCINE HESITANCY
Dr. Dianna Grant is the chief medical officer for Phoebe Putney Health System, headquartered in Albany. She was thrown into Albany’s pandemic on Oct. 26th, serving in her role for only 116 days so far. She remembers watching Albany’s early peak play out on the news while living in Chicago back in March. Now, she serves as a torch-bearer for organizing vaccine administration and addressing vaccine hesitancy.
Albany experienced the post-winter holiday surge in cases that much of America saw.
“And with the high number of transmissions that we faced, we did not totally reach to March or April (numbers). But we were so close. And we had done some predictive modeling around that and they were really afraid that maybe we would even surpass that of what we saw in March,” Grant said.
Now, in February, 56-59% percent of Phoebe’s Albany patients are COVID-19 positive. Roughly 40% come from Dougherty County and the rest are from neighboring counties, or have been transferred from farther away.
Though rates are falling from the January peak, the social determinant, rather than logistics, continues to be the main obstacle to widespread vaccination in southwest Georgia.
Despite the early prevalence of the virus in Albany, many residents view the vaccine with skepticism rather than hope. A majority of locals approached by a Ledger-Enquirer reporter were either unwilling to discuss COVID or said anonymously that they wouldn’t get the vaccine.
When doses first arrived at Phoebe Putney on Dec. 17, Grant thought employees would be lining up to roll up their sleeves to get the vaccine. She soon realized there was widespread distrust of the vaccine, especially among Black Albanians — and for good reason, she said.
“They feel that distrust, a historical distrust,” Grant said. “Because of the mere fact — and they will tell you — ‘now you come to my community, when you want to give me something, and you’re not here already. So why should I trust you, you don’t want to be here every day.’”
For Wendy Johnson, a lifelong Albany resident, she had seen too much death to pass on the vaccine. Santayana Harris, Johnson’s coworker at the Marine Corps Logistics Command, died from complications from a COVID-19 infection alone in her home in Albany.
“Very smart, very nice young lady. She was a song-singing bird,” Johnson said. “And it hit her really bad, it hit her mom and her dad too, but she lost her life. She was only 34.”
Grant, a Black doctor, decided to tackle vaccine hesitancy by posting photos of herself taking the vaccine with a smile — without “(growing) a third eye,” she said. Grant then initiated a campaign to have various local leaders do the same. About 18 doctors in the Phase 1A+ group showed up and rolled up their sleeves. It was a first step in building trust and respect among residents skeptical of the vaccine.
Grant knew, however, that the best way to reach Albany’s community of color was through its religious communities. She began speaking weekly about the vaccine at the local religious meetings. She welcomes any shade of hesitation or skepticism.
“We know the trust cycle with all of us is about listening. …So we entered communities. They send me out to different meetings,” Grant said. “And I don’t give any speeches. I don’t give slides anymore. I simply say I am here for you to ask me questions.”
Albany has also identified access and transportation as obstacles to vaccine distribution in rural southwest Georgia.
When community health leaders realized that people who pay their phone bill by the minute would be unlikely to wait through a long hold time, Grant said they arranged a weekend pop-up vaccination at a community center. They chose a site located in a neighborhood with limited transportation so residents could walk — and many did. One elderly man walked there on a cane and had to sit down a while before he received the vaccine.
“The stories they told me was, ‘Thank you for being here. I’ve seen so many people who have passed,’” Grant said.
Johnson said she had some reservations about the vaccine because of reactions she’d had to the flu shot in the past. When she saw that her vaccinated family members didn’t have any side effects, she decided she would take her chances. She knows vaccination is a priority.
Though she and her fiance plan to get the vaccine, she knows that many in her community won’t. Moreover, Johnson expects the nation as a whole will be dealing with the coronavirus for years to come.
Grant expects to be giving out COVID-19 booster shots each year.
“You know, this may become an annual flu. I have to be honest, I don’t know,” Grant said “We saw this with H1N1 too.”