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'Sitting in freezers': Georgia expanding vaccine access because many rural healthcare workers won't take it

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner, called the situation 'unacceptable' on Thursday.

ATLANTA — Georgia's top public health official, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, explained Thursday the reason the state is moving forward with expanding access to the COVID-19 vaccine was because there are doses "literally sitting in freezers" in parts of the state, with rural healthcare workers reluctant to take them.

The Department of Public Health commissioner said at a press conference that while there are hundreds of healthcare workers on the waiting list to get vaccinated in metro Atlanta, "in many parts of rural Georgia, both in the north and the south, there's vaccine available and literally sitting in freezers."

"That's unacceptable," Dr. Toomey said. "We have lives to save."

RELATED: Kemp: Georgia to expand vaccines to adults age 65-and-older

The state announced Wednesday night the plan to expand access, which will make the vaccine available to adults 65-and-older as well as first responders like police and firefighters. 

Phase 1A of the state's vaccine rollout plan has primarily directed the vaccine to frontline healthcare workers and residents at nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

But it has run into an unexpected road block, in many instances - the healthcare workers themselves.

"It really made sense for us to move into this additional category to offer vaccine for such vulnerable individuals at a time when, sadly, we are not getting the kind of uptake of vaccine by healthcare workers all over the state," Dr. Toomey said Thursday.

Georgia is not unique in this respect - around the nation, there are healthcare workers who have faced high exposure to the coronavirus for months have not rushed to take the vaccine as once expected.

Dr. Toomey said Thursday, though, she was fully confident in its safety.

"I have looked at the data, I have looked at how the vaccines were developed. You know, nobody cut corners. They were able to do it in a record amount of time that surprised many of us in the public health field, but it wasn't because any safety measures were cut. The paperwork and the bureaucracy was streamlined to be able to make it fast, because it's needed fast," Dr. Toomey said. "And I hope that as other people get vaccinated, as people's mothers get vaccinated, that they will be willing to get vaccinated as well."

Dr. Toomey said the state was anticipating an aggressive ramp-up in vaccinating, though, with drive-through vaccination clinics and expanded appointments on the way in the next few weeks.