Georgia rural clinic that vaccinated teachers early appeals 6-month suspension from state health program

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A rural clinic in Georgia that was penalized for vaccinating teachers and slapped with a six-month suspension from the state’s coronavirus vaccination program has appealed the decision, arguing the state’s rules were confusing and other clinics within the same county also administered doses to individuals who did not fall into an approved category under Phase 1.

Located over 100 miles east of Atlanta, the Medical Center of Elberton began vaccinating 177 teachers in December – but only after administering the vaccine to all the health care workers in the county who said they wanted to receive it, Dr. Jonathan Poon, one of the seven physicians who practice at the clinic, told Fox 5 Atlanta. Even though educators are not a part of Phase 1 in the state’s rollout, Poon said he believed the clinic could move forward with the next step because they finished the first early.

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A team with the Georgia Department of Public Health arrived at the clinic in Elberton late last month and seized most of the coronavirus vaccines from the facility, leaving just enough to administer the second dose to individuals they had already administered the first.

It won’t receive new shipments until July, but Poon said he sent in a second appeal to the state health department last week after it came to light that another medical provider in Elbert County also broke from the Phase 1 restrictions. 

The Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Ga., decided to provide shots to any family member in the immediate household or in regular contact with one of their employees, CEO Kurt Stuenkel confirmed to Fox 5. The center employs 3,300 people and had administered the vaccine to at least 766 family members before it stopped two weeks ago. At least some of those family members were 65 or older or a caregiver, which means they fell into the category of approved recipients under Phase 1.

“We need our staff to be able to care for our patients,” Stuenkel said.

Nurse Courtney Kirkland prepares to administer the Moderna coronavirus vaccine to Barbara Gussin, Tuesday, Feb.2, 2021, at the Paulding County Health Department in Dallas, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Unlike in Elberton, the health department did not seem to take issue with how the Floyd Medical Center deviated from state policy. 

“They made a decision that they thought was in the best interest of their hospital system to keep their employees working,” Dr. Chris Rustin, who is a senior advisor to the state health department commissioner and head of vaccine planning and logistics, told Fox 5.

The state health department said in a statement released on Feb. 1 that it suspended The Medical Center of Elberton, a private provider, from the COVID-19 Vaccination Program in Georgia after “learning the provider had been vaccinating individuals in the Elbert County School District who were outside of the current Phase 1A+ eligible population.”

The suspension became effective immediately for a term of six months, ending July 27, 2021.

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During the suspension, the facility will not receive any new COVID-19 vaccine shipments. The Medical Center of Elberton “may use vaccine from their current inventory to administer second doses to patients who have received their first dose through the facility,” the state health department said. Vaccine not required for those second doses will be picked up and redistributed for use in Elbert County.

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