COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) – Amid a state-wide struggle for COVID-19 vaccines, Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson has expressed concern that the county is lagging behind comparable counties in getting vaccines in arms. State officials say Muscogee is getting its fair share of doses and are explaining how vaccines are allocated.
Dr. Chris Rustin, who leads Georgia Department of Public Health’s vaccine rollout, said Columbus is on par with counties of similar population.
“On the allocation side, Columbus / Muscogee County actually falls in line when you do a comparison of counties of similar size and population,” said Dr. Rustin. “I believe that Muscogee is the 12th populous county in the state and it’s about 14th in the state in receiving vaccine.”
Rustin said comparing Muscogee to traditional peer counties like Chatham and Richmond, both of which have received significantly more doses than Columbus, doesn’t work.
“In those counties, there are six hospitals across that system, across those counties that can handle a large volume of Pfizer vaccine, in addition to Moderna,” said Rustin. “There’s also more providers generally across those two counties.”
Having more hospitals matters because they can store the Pfizer vaccine at the ultra-freezing temperatures it requires.
Henderson accepts the state’s explanation and says he’s glad the question was raised.
“At this point, I think what they say we are receiving, we are fine with as long as we’re receiving what the citizens of Muscogee County deserve,” said Henderson. “And we want to make sure as the vaccines are sent out, that we are on the mailing list.”
By the numbers: where Columbus stands
Rustin offered another way of looking at the numbers.
Muscogee County has received 1.7 percent of the total state-wide vaccines to date. According to state officials, Muscogee also has 1.7 percent of the state’s total Phase 1A+ population who are currently eligible to receive the vaccine. Muscogee County represents 1.9 percent of the state’s total population.
DPH’s allocation team reviewed Muscogee County in relation to counties of comparable population.
Eleven counties with populations from 26 percent more to 27 percent less than Muscogee County were included in the analysis.
With 35,850 doses shipped as of Feb. 12, Muscogee County appears to be in line with those comparable counties.
Rustin also said the DPH dashboard, which provides regular updates on COVID-19 data, is likely underreporting the number of doses administered in Muscogee County.
“Total doses administered are probably higher than what is shown in the dashboard,” said Rustin. “This is due to the way Piedmont reports vaccines administered from their parent account. We are working with the hospital system to get the doses reported accurately for Piedmont Columbus Regional.”
Who gets what: breaking down the process
Rustin explained how the allocation award process begins with a computer model.
“The model is based on the number of providers who can handle the two vaccines we have on hand,” Rustin said. “It looks at percentage of population. The percentage of population based on the current phase we are in, which is 65-plus, the health care community, first responders, et cetera.”
It’s a complicated algorithm.
“The model takes into account administration rates,” Rustin said, “how much vaccine is actually being administered by providers in the community. And it looks at the inventory on hand. If it indicates that a provider has a large inventory on hand, the model may not allocate as much to that provider because it is really looking for providers who are administering a lot of doses and have very limited inventory.”
Rustin emphasizes the model is only a tool.
“It may recommend an allocation amount and we may not have that much,” Rustin said. “But it gives us a data-centric way to allocate this vaccine across the state in a more efficient way.”
A vaccine board takes those computer model recommendations and makes adjustments.
“We have a large allocation team that reviews the data…” Rustin said, “and we tweak the data based on how much vaccine we have.”
Mayor Henderson’s concerns
Henderson expressed concerns about this to News 3 on Monday. That night he texted Gov. Brian Kemp about the situation. The mayor was concerned that state data showed Chatham/Savannah with four times as many shots at Muscogee and Richmond/Augusta with three times as many.
After that text 1,000 doses became available and Friday they will be distributed at an appointment-only clinic at the Civic Center. There is a nearly 20,000 person waiting list in Muscogee County, according to DPH. Those getting the Friday shots will come off that list.
“I reached out directly to the governor,” Henderson said earlier this week. “And I think he helped get us some doses so we can stand up a vaccination site on Friday.”
Henderson is looking for the person who makes the weekly decision about vaccine allocation.
“No, we are still in discussions trying to figure out who we need to be calling directly,” Henderson said. “But I reached out directly to the governor. And I think he helped get us some doses so we can stand up a vaccination site on Friday.”
It will be the largest mass vaccine clinic held in Columbus since the vaccines began arriving in December.