What happened at The Medical Center of Elberton Tuesday?

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  • Ryan Rutan (far right), was later identified after Tuesday’s seizure of Pfizer vaccines as an employee of the Georgia Department of Public Health. The two men shown on the left have still yet to be identified. The group is standing around a box full of frozen vials of the Pfizer vaccine. The Elberton Star is sending an open records request to the Georgia Department of Public Health to identify the men and the agency they work for. (Photo by Jones)
    Ryan Rutan (far right), was later identified after Tuesday’s seizure of Pfizer vaccines as an employee of the Georgia Department of Public Health. The two men shown on the left have still yet to be identified. The group is standing around a box full of frozen vials of the Pfizer vaccine. The Elberton Star is sending an open records request to the Georgia Department of Public Health to identify the men and the agency they work for. (Photo by Jones)
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I’m Gary Jones, publisher of The Elberton Star.

Our deadline for publication falls on Tuesday. At a time when we are readying our presses to print our newspaper for the Wednesday (Feb. 3) publication date, I received a phone call informing me that someone claiming to represent the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) had notified The Medical Center of Elberton (TMCE) that they would be in Elberton within 20 minutes to pick up TMCE’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

There is a video recording of the following description of events that occurred at TMCE, made by the healthcare facility’ practice administrator Brooke McDowell. I also have photos of the people that are involved in the following narrative.

When I arrived five unidentified people were in and around the room where TMCE stores its precious Pfizer vaccines. When I entered that area, with my press badge clearly visible, I walked up to two men that were part of the party of five and asked them their names.

They refused to answer.

Two other members of the party of five were actually reaching into TMCE’s ultra-cold freezer and removing the Pfizer vaccines. A third member of the party of five had a photo ID and a clipboard and said that she was there by the authority of the DPH. I could see on the ID on her belt her photograph and her name, which I wrote in my notes – Leah Hoffacker. She never exposed her badge for me to see what agency she belonged to. 

Shortly after I arrived, Hoffacker asked McDowell to sign a document stating that TMCE was “voluntarily” allowing this party to remove the vaccines from the ultra-cold freezer. McDowell refused to sign the document.

The two men who refused to say who they were when I initially walked into the room never did show me a photo ID or a badge. 

Some time after I asked them who they were, they did raise their jackets just enough so McDowell could see that they had badges, but McDowell told me that she didn’t have enough time to see exactly if there was any identifiable agency name on the badges. 

Before I asked these two men if they were armed, I asked them if they had a court order or a warrant.

Considering my question, one of the two men who had a badge took Ms. Hoffacker outside away from the crying, pleading staff members at TMCE and, I suppose, consulted among themselves and DPH officials on their cell phones. 

After that brief meeting away from everyone, the man who walked outside with Ms. Hoffacker came back into the room and announced that they were leaving and that they would call McDowell at a later date and make proper arrangements to come back and seize the vaccines.

At that point this same man informed McDowell that she was to “secure” those vaccines that two members of his group had already removed from the ultra-cold freezers at TMCE. McDowell informed this man that to protect the integrity of the vaccines removed from the freezer, the vaccines COULD NOT be returned to the freezer for two hours, and since she had previously told them that once they removed the vaccines from TMCE’s freezer, this party of five would be responsible making sure the vaccines were “secure.” Also, McDowell informed the party of five that in the process of opening the ultra-cold freezer, they had to very carefully time themselves and make sure that the vaccines were not exposed beyond certain time limits.

The party of five persons were then shown where they could sit with the vaccine until the two hours had expired and the vaccines could be safely returned to the ultra-cold freezer.

At this point, believing that the vaccines were NOT going to be removed from TMCE Tuesday morning, I returned to the newspaper office and made arrangements for completing this week’s edition of the newspaper.

It was only later after I returned to the newspaper office that McDowell called to say that the party of five ultimately reversed their previous plan to leave the vaccines at TMCE and loaded them into a trailer van (Georgia tag number PIQ7441) and took them, according to these unidentified persons, to an ultra-cold freezer in Athens. 

In the brief interaction with McDowell just after the removal of the vaccines occurred, she asked me if I ever got the names of the party of five involved in this incident.

I told her no. 

In an update this morning (Wednesday, Feb. 3), McDowell said that TMCE released the vaccines to the party of five only after talking with DPH officials by phone, who sent a letter via email to verify that the party of five represented DPH. McDowell also clarified this morning that Hoffacker did show her a badge when she first appeared at TMCE. 

Two other persons in the party of five have yet to be identified.

Today (Wednesday) The Elberton Star will be filing an open records request with the Georgia Department of Public Health to identify two of the five people (and their titles) who seized the vaccines at TMCE. McDowell said she had been informed that the other people involved in the incident were Georgia Department of Public Health employees Hoffacker, Ryan Rutan and Tracy Dabbs. McDowell identified Rutan and Dabbs as the persons who removed the vaccines from TMCE’s ultra-cold freezer.