ELBERTON, Georgia – This small town was still in shock on Friday, days after state health workers raided the county’s busiest medical clinic and seized its supply of Covid-19 vaccines because that the staff had given doses to the teachers.
Some 470 injections of Pfizer vaccine were confiscated at the Medical Center of Elberton, a private clinic that was Elbert County’s largest vaccine supplier, leaving just enough medicine to ensure a second dose for those already vaccinated.
“Everything we had tried to do so far to vaccinate our county has been wasted,” Dr. Jonathan Poon, who works at the clinic, told NBC News.
Additionally, Georgia’s public health ministry said it will no longer provide vaccines to the medical center for the next six months until July 27.
“DPH took action after learning that the provider had vaccinated individuals in the Elbert County school district who were not in the current phase 1A + eligible population,” the agency said in a statement. “There is no other reason for the suspension than what we have stated previously.”
But in a Jan. 29 letter to the center, the department gave no warning that it would seize the remaining shots on Tuesday.
“Exiting phases disrupts the allocation process and creates the potential for many elderly citizens not to receive timely immunizations,” the department said. “When you enrolled in the Georgia COVID Vaccine Program, you signed a COVID Vaccine Provider Agreement that stated that you and your practice will not violate any state or federal rules related to the program. “
In an interview, Dr Chris Rustin of the Department of Public Health, said the clinic’s actions left them no choice.
“Coming out of the phase almost on purpose was something we couldn’t ignore,” he said. “And we had to make sure other vaccinators understand that our vaccine supply is so limited that we have to follow a plan that was clearly communicated. “
Yet as late as Dec. 7, educators were considered by the state to be part of this “essential group,” Poon said, adding that they were able to vaccinate around 177 school workers before the public health department. do not close them.
“We felt, you know, with state guidance, that the teachers were part of that group,” he said. “So as soon as we were able to travel to vaccinate essential workers, we did.”
The first idea they might have run into the state was on Jan. 26 when the department called “to ask whether or not we had vaccinated the teachers,” the doctor said.
“And at the time, of course we thought that was part of the proper procedure, so we said yes,” Poon said. “And in less than 48 hours, the state made a decision that our immunization status was suspended and that we would no longer be able to immunize individuals.”
The reaction of the community? “Shock,” he said.
Terrie Glaude, a teacher from Elbert County, managed to get her second shot just days before the service descended on the clinic. “I was very lucky not to have to worry about this,” she said.
She said she was taken aback by the news of the raid and did not agree “with the state mandate that teachers should not have been in the first wave of vaccinations” .
“Everyone wants their kids to go to school,” Glaude said. “And the way to keep them in school is to let our teachers get vaccinated with the elderly population, and then come down, you know, as it should be.”
Marlene Lord, who is 68 and received her second dose at the clinic on Thursday, said she would have gladly had a teacher vaccinated.
“Being retired, I have the ability to stay away more than them,” she said. “I want the kids to go to school. And I think the more protection the better.”
Lord also said the public health department had done the community a disservice by taking the vaccines at the clinic.
“If something was done wrong you know it should have just been fixed,” she said. “The people here are not there to do anything wrong. They have the best interests of the community at heart. You know ? “
Due to the shortage of vaccines, public health agencies and healthcare providers often face difficult choices, Jennifer Kates, public policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NBC News.
“It’s almost like a ‘Sophie’s choice’ of having to choose between an elderly person that we know, if they are infected with coronavirus, have a much higher probability of getting sick and even dying, or someone. one who is a front line worker that we need in society, “she said.
DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said they gave the clinic 30 minutes’ notice on Tuesday that they were coming to get the vaccines.
The weekly Elberton Star was heading to the press that afternoon when publisher Gary Jones first learned of the raid.
“When I arrived there were five unidentified people in and around the room where TMCE stores its precious Pfizer vaccine,” Jones wrote on the newspaper’s website. “When I entered the area, with my press badge visible, I approached two men who were part of the group of five and asked them their names. They refused to answer.”
Jones said he saw two of the people remove the vaccines from the clinic’s freezer and reported that a woman whose ID badge bore Leah Hoffacker’s name had confirmed they were there “by DPH authority.”
Hoffacker, according to his LinkedIn profile, is responsible for the medical countermeasures program in the public health department and his job is to distribute vaccines and drugs during public health emergencies. All state health workers involved in the raid are members of the department’s vaccine distribution team, Nydam said.
As department investigators obtained the vaccines, Jones wrote, medical center office director Brooke McDowell videotaped what was going on.
“Shortly after I arrived, Hoffacker asked McDowell to sign a document stating that TMCE was ‘voluntarily’ authorizing this party to remove the vaccines from the ultra-cold freezer,” Jones wrote. “McDowell refused to sign the document.”
Jones said he asked public health workers if they had a warrant or court order and that clinic staff were “crying” and “begging” them not to take them. vaccines.
Department employees at the time appeared to be reconsidering the vaccine withdrawal, Jones wrote. But after returning to the newspaper to oversee the publication of the new edition, Jones said he was informed that employees in the department had removed the vaccines from the premises.
Jones told NBC News he is filing an open file request with the state to identify other department employees who “stepped on the clinic.”
Elberton Medical Center filed an appeal to overturn the suspension, claiming it had not knowingly broken any rules or regulations and blamed the error on “a lack of clarification on the part of the state,” said reported the NBC affiliate.
The confiscated vaccines were redistributed to five other suppliers in rural Elbert County on the South Carolina border, along with 2,100 additional doses, the public health department said.
One of them is Madden’s Pharmacy in the town of Elberton, where owner Don Piela told the local NBC News affiliate that they are currently vaccinating about 50 people a day and that the clinic’s doses are confiscated. made no sense.
“For me it’s kind of a problem,” he said. “It’s kind of like, why would you want to take the fire trucks out of the fire station and put them somewhere else?” “
Other recipients of the confiscated vaccines are the Elbert County Department of Health, Elbert Memorial Hospital, MedLink and a local grocery store in Ingles.
The department said, via Nydam, that it is upholding its decision to suspend Elberton Medical Center and is confident that residents of Elbert County have and will continue to have more than sufficient local access to the vaccine.
According to Georgia guidelines, teachers are not eligible for the vaccine unless they are also health workers, first responders, or 65 and over.
But Elberton Medical Center began vaccinating school workers last month after administering doses to high-priority workers “but before completing the vaccination of the elderly,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in January.
“We’re not going to leave it on the shelf to ruin,” McDowell told the newspaper last month. “The governor asked us to fire and that’s what we’re doing.”
County schools were opened because many of the roughly 3,000 children enrolled in the district do not have internet service, which would allow virtual learning and would also depend on schools for food, Dr J told the newspaper. Daniel McAvoy. .
“So we considered it very important to get our teachers vaccinated and we went out and did it,” McAvoy said. “And then we saw the tips later.”
Rep. Andrew Clyde, the newly elected Republican who represents the county, declined to comment on the vaccine confiscation, his spokesman Russell Read said.
Covid-19 vaccines are already provided to kindergarten through high school teachers in 25 states and Washington, DC, although in some of those states they are limited to certain counties, according to a New York Times survey of vaccination eligibility rules.
In another NBC News survey, teachers are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccination in 22 different states.
Georgia, however, is not among those states on either list.
Sitting in a building near the clinic that staff had turned into a vaccination center, Poon inspected an empty waiting room that in the days leading up to the raid had a constant, but socially distant, flow of patients coming to their homes. appointment.
“It’s heartbreaking,” the doctor said. “We have poured everything into the last few months to try to make it a success.”
At first, Poon said, they invested $ 7,000 out of their own pocket in an expensive freezer capable of storing vaccines because they wanted to be part of the solution to the pandemic.
“We were humble,” he said. “We weren’t expecting a pat on the back. We thought that was part of the plan.”
Gosk reported from Elberton, Georgia, Strickler from Washington DC, Cavazuti from New York and Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey.