Atlanta Officials Look into Claims of Fire Department Family Members Jumping Vaccine Line

Some fire department officials took their spouses or other family members to get the shots.

Some fire department officials took their spouses or other family members to get the shots

Ariel Hart, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(MCT)

Feb. 11–In the most prominent example so far of vaccine line-jumping, Atlanta told its Fire Rescue Department members that it had arranged for their immediate family members to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

A memo issued by the fire department’s EMS Division deputy chief, Jimmy Gittens, said that the department, working with the mayor’s office, had “finalized the 2nd round (1B) of COVID-19 vaccinations for the members and immediate family members of the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department” and that vaccinations would resume beginning Feb. 5.

As soon as they got the go-ahead, some fire department officials took their spouses or other family members to get the shots and urged others to do so, according to a fire department source who spoke on the condition of not being named.

Officials with the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms did not respond to questions from the AJC about whether the city had consulted with the state before making the decision and how many people had received shots who were not eligible under state rules.

Instead, the city issued a brief statement calling the vaccination process for the city’s public safety officials smooth and successful. “To the best of our knowledge,” a city spokesperson wrote, “no qualifying public safety official who has requested a vaccine has been denied.

“The memo in question was a miscommunication,” the spokesperson wrote, “and the city is looking into the facts surrounding the matter.”

Georgia is not yet vaccinating group 1B. Even if it were, Phase 1B doesn’t include family members of fire personnel according to rules set by the Department of Public Health and the governor. It is for essential infrastructure workers who do work critical to public health, economy, safety and national security.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, Nancy Nydam, said in an email that the state was not aware of the Atlanta decision and had not been involved in it. She added that “DPH has been and continues to be very clear with providers (of shots to people) that we are in Phase 1A+ for vaccination.”

She added in highlighted text, “unless they are in one of the above populations, spouses and family members are not eligible for vaccine administration at this time.”

To qualify for vaccine at this stage, a family member would have to be eligible on his or her own: either as a worker or resident at a long-term-care facility, as a first responder or front-line health worker, or being aged 65 or older. Those are the groups eligible now under what DPH calls the “1A+” phase. Vaccine is currently too scarce to do more.

The move comes on the heels of two other known incidents of line-jumping, one at an Elbert County clinic and one at Floyd Medical Center in Rome.

In Elbert County, a doctor decided to vaccinate local school district employees. In Floyd County, the hospital gave vaccine to family members of their employees. The Elbert County doctor has had his vaccine seized, and the Floyd County incident is under review by DPH.

It is unclear which provider agreed to give the city’s new group the vaccine. The city itself is not a vaccine distributor, Nydam said.

About 2,000 clinics, hospitals, and other organizations have qualified so far to receive vaccine and administer it. County boards of health also give out vaccine. In general, the state receives an allotment of more than 100,000 doses each week, and it then decides which of the providers get how many of those doses. The allotment is still a fraction of what is needed, and each week providers wait anxiously to find out if how much of the state’s allotment they’re getting.

The doses may come via a public health office. Or for bigger providers like big hospitals, the doses may be shipped directly from the vaccine manufacturer, at the state’s instructions.

When Floyd Medical Center workers went to get their family members vaccinated, they didn’t have to negotiate for vaccine; the hospital was a provider and had its own supply.

A number of officials interviewed by the AJC said that they sympathized with front-line workers trying to get their family members vaccinated, but it still comes with a cost. The EMS worker or health worker is eligible to be vaccinated on his or her own. Any vaccine given to a family member is vaccine that doesn’t go to someone even more vulnerable to severe disease or death, experts said.

“I absolutely have sympathy for them,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor of public health at Georgia State University. “If we had unlimited vaccine we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

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