Ga. community pays price after moving teachers ahead in vaccination line – Atlanta Journal Constitution

The decision affects everyone in the community, including the seniors who are in the state’s top priority group for vaccination given their death rate.

“I’m not sure what message you intended to send with such an extreme remedial action, but I can assure you that it will, without exception, be that you and the Department of Public Health do not care if Elbert County citizens die,” R. Daniel Graves, chairman of the county hospital authority, wrote to state public health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey Thursday.

Graves’ Elberton-Elbert County Hospital Authority oversees Elbert Memorial Hospital, which wasn’t involved. The sanction is against the privately operated Medical Center, which has a state contract to vaccinate residents. Graves defended both the private doctors’ office and the school district for their decision to expedite the inoculation of school employees.

The state reaction comes amid rising tension between educators and Gov. Brian Kemp. This week, the AJC obtained a copy of a letter from 11 metro Atlanta superintendents asking the governor to move teachers ahead in the vaccination line. “The longer we delay in vaccinating our teachers and school staff, the more we risk having to close our doors once again,” they wrote.

Kemp’s communications director responded that the vaccine is in short supply and this is a triage decision: “These superintendents should explain which currently eligible population should be, in their view, sent to the back of the line for vaccination. Seniors? Healthcare workers? First responders and law enforcement?”

Brooke McDowell, the administrator at the Medical Center, said her office made sure health care workers, first responders and nursing home workers had a chance to get vaccinated before inviting teachers to get shots in early January. The only remaining 1A+ group members were residents aged 65 and over, and she said the center was able to simultaneously dose them and teachers. Until this week, the center was inoculating nearly a hundred seniors a day, but that must now end, she said, noting that many seniors will be unable to drive to another county to get shots.

January 27, 2021 Elberton - Tina Mewborne, LPN, opens a freezer containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical Center of Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

January 27, 2021 Elberton – Tina Mewborne, LPN, opens a freezer containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical Center of Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Our community is relying on us to vaccinate them,” McDowell said. “We never intentionally defied anybody’s orders.” McDowell said they will appeal the state’s decision.

Lisa Morgan, a DeKalb County teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said the sanction in Elbert County sends a message to teachers across Georgia that they are “expendable.”

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators said it is essential to vaccinate educators to keep schools open. “We hope state leaders will prioritize teacher vaccination at the absolute first possible opportunity,” a spokeswoman said.

Amid the debate about who should be inoculated first is another concern: skepticism about the new vaccines.

Elbert County School District Superintendent Jon Jarvis told the AJC that only about 40% of his 500 or so employees chose to get the shots.

David Bennett, an art teacher at the high school, was among them, but his wife, an elementary school teacher, was not.

“Unfortunately, she’s going to have to wait until she can get in line somewhere else,” he said. “She’s kicking herself now for not doing it.”

January 27, 2021 Elberton - Elbert County High School teacher David Bennett leaves after he received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical Center Of Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Georgia has not opened COVID-19 vaccination to teachers yet, but a small school district east of Athens still managed to offer shots to any employee who wanted them. Elbert County Superintendent Jon Jarvis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees his teachers, bus drivers and other employees as ÒessentialÓ personnel who should be prioritized for vaccination. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

January 27, 2021 Elberton – Elbert County High School teacher David Bennett leaves after he received his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Medical Center Of Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Georgia has not opened COVID-19 vaccination to teachers yet, but a small school district east of Athens still managed to offer shots to any employee who wanted them. Elbert County Superintendent Jon Jarvis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees his teachers, bus drivers and other employees as ÒessentialÓ personnel who should be prioritized for vaccination. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Julie Burton, the high school registrar, said she and her husband, a local firefighter, are both 38 and healthy and were so skeptical about the vaccine that they gave up their place at the front of the line.

During the Wednesday lunch hour in Elberton, the seat of this largely white and politically conservative county, opinions were mixed about vaccinating teachers.

“I think they ought to get the old people first,” said Joe Scarborough, 74, though he added that he was in no rush to get vaccinated. His girlfriend, Sheila Hill, 59, had been trying to get vaccination appointments for her parents who live in a nearby county, but she sympathized with teachers. People “keep griping because the schools are shut down,” she said, “then they absolutely need to make them a priority.”

The schools in Elbert County have been operating in-person since the start of the school year, but Jarvis said they had to close for six days prior to Thanksgiving when at least 1 in 10 of the 3,000 students had to quarantine, along with many of the teachers.

January 27, 2021 Elberton - Joe Scarborough and his girl friend Sheila Hill share their thoughts on school employee prioritized for COVID vaccination in downtown Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Georgia has not opened COVID-19 vaccination to teachers yet, but a small school district east of Athens still managed to offer shots to any employee who wanted them. Elbert County Superintendent Jon Jarvis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees his teachers, bus drivers and other employees as “essential” personnel who should be prioritized for vaccination. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

January 27, 2021 Elberton – Joe Scarborough and his girl friend Sheila Hill share their thoughts on school employee prioritized for COVID vaccination in downtown Elberton on Wednesday, January 27, 2021. Georgia has not opened COVID-19 vaccination to teachers yet, but a small school district east of Athens still managed to offer shots to any employee who wanted them. Elbert County Superintendent Jon Jarvis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees his teachers, bus drivers and other employees as “essential” personnel who should be prioritized for vaccination. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The low vaccination rate among school employees did not surprise Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University. National surveys show widespread skepticism about the new vaccines, which use genetic technology.

This is the first widespread deployment of mRNA vaccines, but Bednarczyk expressed confidence in them, saying the technology has been under development since after the first SARS virus emerged in 2002.

The pressure on Kemp and Toomey to get teachers vaccinated is likely to grow.

President Joe Biden wants schools open, and this week researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article in a medical journal that said schools can safely operate in-person. There were several caveats, though: Masks and other long-advised safety protocols must be in place and communities must control overall infection rates, even if it hurts the local economy. For instance, leaders must be willing to restrict indoor dining in restaurants.

Too many school districts have refused to mandate masks, and the state has prioritized business over safety, said Morgan, with the Georgia Association of Educators. “I think the pressure’s going to continue mounting as long as we are insisting on prioritizing face-to-face instruction without all the necessary mitigation factors in place.”

Staff writer Kristal Dixon, newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles and news applications developer Emily Merwin DiRico contributed to this article.