The Coastal Health District announced Monday that it has temporarily stopped taking COVID-19 vaccination appointments due to an overwhelming response from people in the expanded Phase 1A category.

In less than a week of taking appointments, health departments in the eight-county health district, which includes Glynn, Camden, McIntosh, Liberty, Long, Bryan, Chatham and Effingham counties, have received enough requests to keep them busy through February and into March, according to the health district.

No health department was keeping count of the number of calls, but Dr. Lawton Davis, director of the Coastal Health District, said Monday the eight counties easily received 10,000 to 12,000 calls on Thursday and Friday last week, the first two days phone lines were open for appointments.

Upwards of 3,000 appointments have been scheduled and many more are waiting for a call back from the health department to set a date.

“We were anticipating a robust response from those elderly citizens and, in fact, the response has been tremendous,” Davis said. “That’s excellent news because this group needs to be vaccinated but what it has done is overwhelmed our telephone and scheduling capacity.”

No appointments are being canceled and those waiting for a call back from their health department will get an appointment, according to the health department.

Residents of the eight counties can go to covid19.gachd.org to register for a notification when appointments open back up. Registering online does not guarantee a vaccination appointment, however.

Other providers can sign up to distribute vaccines at the website, and Davis encouraged them to do so. At least five healthcare providers, including Southeast Georgia Health System, have signed on, but not all are offering vaccines to the general public.

“If we’re the only game in town, this process is going to take a long time,” Davis said.

Supply is one of the two constraints on the health district’s ability to distribute the vaccine, he said. Drug manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna provide the vaccine to the federal government, which divvies up shipments to the states. States divide that between county health departments and other healthcare providers and pharmacies.

“For example, this past week we placed an order and our order was cut by 50 percent because so many other people were requesting it and to spread it around that’s what they had to do,” Davis said.

Another part of the distribution problem is the federal government’s practice of holding back 50 percent of each shipment of the vaccine. The second half is kept for the second dose needed to gain the full effectiveness of the vaccination.

Davis said the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, when it takes power, will likely release more initial doses. The second dose needs to be taken three to four weeks after the first but can be taken up to four weeks after that, he explained, meaning that sending more initial doses and holding back fewer for the second could address the supply problem in the short-term.

“But it’s not just supply. It’s the physical ability to be able to put people through the clinic and the process. That’s why we need more providers,” Davis said.

The health department is actively looking for means to increase access to vaccines.

“We know people are frustrated because the process is moving more slowly than they would like, and if we could vaccinate everyone today, we’d do that,” Davis said. “But your health departments are stretched thin and doing what they can to move forward.”

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