On Monday The Medical Center of Elberton (TMCE) issued a second appeal letter to Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and asked for an in-person (or virtual) appeal to all nine DPH members and Governor Brian Kemp.
The appeal was made with an accompanying timeline which refers to DPH documentation that supports TMCE’s rationale for vaccinating 177 school employees earlier this month.
On Jan. 26 DPH, which claimed it had “investigated” TMCE’s actions, replied within 24 hours of TMCE’s first appeal and suspended TMCE for six months, meaning the Elberton healthcare facility would not receive any more COVID-19 vaccine shipments until July 27.
But over the weekend, the staff of TMCE, including Practice Administrator Brooke McDowell and the nine physicians at TMCE – Dr. Dan McAvoy, Dr. Glenn Poon, Dr. David Mize, Dr. Mark Daniel, Dr. Jonathan Poon, Dr. Wynn Crowe and Dr. Mathew Jenkins – sent a letter to Toomey with a timeline of DPH “plans” that quote DPH’s back-and-forth positions on vaccination priorities and correspondence TMCE had with DPH since November, when TMCE learned that Pfizer’s vaccine was going to need an ultra-cold storage freezer.
Newly-elected 33rd District Georgia House Rep. Rob Leverett said DPH’s suspension of TMCE’s supply was “grossly unfair.”
Leverett said he would be working with state officials and the governor’s office to resolve TMCE’s dispute with DPH over the vaccines.
“The people of Elbert County are lucky to have Rob Leverett representing them,” McDowell said Monday morning, saying that Leverett had worked with TMCE on the second appeal. “Elbert County should be proud they elected him.”
TMCE’s latest letter to Dr. Toomey, sent on Monday morning, said that until an appeal is made to Gov. Kemp and all nine of the Georgia Department of Public Health’s board members, TMCE wants to be allowed to give vaccinations to TMCE patients using the vaccine stock in place.
“The request includes first and second shots,” said TMCE’s second request.
The letter says that on Dec. 7, 2020 DPH issued “Version 3” of a state-wide vaccination plan and “Version 4” of that plan in early January that contained within both versions Center for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which outline specific instances in which teachers were in a “critical workforce” classification.
“We continued to vaccinate our seniors (over 65 years of age) every day per the new recommendations at a rate of about 80 per day in our vaccine clinic in accordance to the now-published guidelines,” said TMCE’s timeline attached to its second appeal.
The timeline also said after a 24-hour “investigation,” DPH ordered TMCE to “halt vaccinations and we have done so willingly.”
But TMCE took issue with DPH’s investigation.
“We were not given any warnings, hearings or corrective plans of action before being fully sanctioned,” said TMCE’s timeline. “We have not been given any direction on what to do with the leftover vaccines despite requests to the state.”
“The public needs to know that we vaccinated 177 school employees parallel to vaccinating seniors over 65,” said McDowell.
Since TMCE acquired property next to its healthcare facility to run a 40-hour-a-week vaccination program, the health facility had vaccinated an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 seniors over the age of 65, said McDowell.
“We were averaging about 80 vaccinations for that age group,” McDowell explained.
When DPH suspended TMCE, McDowell had a stockpile of approximately 4,000 vaccines.
“We began very early the process on acquiring vaccines,” said McDowell Monday morning minutes after TMCE sent its second appeal to DPH. “We are forward thinkers. We began our process for getting the vaccines and then we got our freezer to store the vaccines from Pfizer.”
McDowell said that TMCE had extensive discussions with Elbert County Emergency Management Agency Director Chuck Almond and Elbert County School Superintendent Jon Jarvis as far back as September on what it would take to keep Elbert County schools open for “face-to-face learning.”
“We are in a rural community where students are fed at school and a lot of students don’t have internet access,” said Jarvis last week. “Coming to school is important in a rural community like ours. When I called around to ask other school systems getting a vaccine, they said they didn’t have anybody offering them a vaccine.”
“They were selected to be a ‘pod’ for vaccinations very early,” said Almond, who told The Elberton Star that until McDowell and TMCE vaccinated local law enforcement officers, firemen, first responders and EMTs, all those critical workers were going to have to stand in line with other such workers in Athens and wait much longer to get vaccinated.
“They committed to helping the community get these vaccinations,” said Almond Friday. “(TMCE) got the freezer before anybody else. They made a commitment to get that property and start vaccinating people.”
TMCE’s vaccine supply was suspended last week for six months after the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) conducted its investigation after being notified TMCE had vaccinated teachers in the Elbert County School District.
“DPH was notified Jan. 26, 2021 that the facility vaccinated individuals in the Elbert County School District who were outside of the current Phase 1A+ eligible population,” DPH Spokesperson Nancy Nydam said in an email. “Following an investigation and a verification of vaccine administration through GRITS (Georgia Registry of Immunization Transactions and Services), the information received by DPH was deemed factual.”
Nydam said DPH notified TMCE of its suspension Jan. 27, effective immediately. The suspension will last for six months and end July 27.
During the suspension, TMCE will not receive any COVID-19 vaccine shipments but will be able to keep the facility’s existing supply, Nydam said.
“It is my opinion that (TMCE’s) ultimate goal was to get as many people vaccinated appropriately in our community, and patients, to mitigate the spread of COVID, the spread of people getting sick, to provide a community continuity of operations,” Almond said after the DPH announced its suspension. “The guidance hasn’t been clear as far as an actual directive, up until Jan. 11. I do think that (TMCE) has reasonably supported the community and tried to make sure everyone had an opportunity to be vaccinated in the guidelines of the CDC and the Georgia DPH.”