Gov. Brian Kemp looks over 60 additional beds that have been set up for any patient overflows while touring the alternative hospital bed capacity facility the state of Georgia is re-activating.
( Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega and it's great to have you with us. The number of people who've received the Coronavirus vaccine in the United States continues to lag far behind the number of vaccines that have actually been sent out. To find out why these delays are happening and how cities and states are dealing with the vaccine rollout more broadly, we've been checking in with local leaders from across the country.
Today, we go to Georgia, which has distributed a smaller percentage of its vaccines than any other state, that's according to CDC data. Reports are detailing health departments that are overwhelmed by calls from residents trying to schedule vaccinations. As this delayed rollout is taking place, Georgia has had more COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent days than at any other point in the pandemic. Joining me now to discuss is Mayor Van Johnson of Savannah, Georgia. Mayor Johnson, thanks for coming back on the Takeaway.
Mayor Van Johnson: Thank you so much and I appreciate the opportunity to be back with you.
Tanzina: At the end of December, Georgia governor Brian Kemp added more categories of people who should take priority when it comes to being vaccinated. Did that announcement make the rollout more complicated in Savannah?
Mayor Johnson: I think that the fact was that we needed to have a plan that was well thought out, and that was really accurately being able to gauge how many people would want to take advantage of this opportunity. Of course, adding more categories before we really had a feel for how things were going, I think, certainly complicated the issue.
Tanzina: Mayor, how would you assess Savannah right now in terms of the vaccine rollout?
Mayor Johnson: Oh, right now I would place us at being overwhelmed. I think that, again, our local folks here on the ground are doing the best they can. I think it's just too many people and, of course, we just need help from the state to help us to be able to manage it. We don't have the resources here to be able to take the calls and to get shots in arms. If I could, we would be doing this 24 hours a day here in Savannah.
Tanzina: What's preventing that, mayor, because I'm wondering if you're asking if Governor Kemp is opening up, adding more people to the priority list and you are saying, we need help. What is the disconnect there?
Mayor Johnson: Oh, the disconnect is that you have a governor that does not communicate with mayors of his cities and folks in the communities which he serves. We hear about his plans by press conference or press release. There is no consideration given to those of us on the ground that our citizens start to call when they realize they cannot get through because phone numbers are jammed and websites have crashed.
Tanzina: Mayor, back in April, you spoke with us on this show and you were frustrated with Governor Brian Kemp for pushing to reopen businesses in the state. What did the push to reopen businesses in the state do to the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in the city of Savannah?
Mayor Johnson: I think it's almost solely responsible for our increase. Georgia was the last to close and the first to open when I issued the first mandate in the state of Georgia for July the first, the rest of Georgia started taking note and, in Georgia, we still do not have, even on this day, have a mandatory mass mandate. The governor's allowed bars and restaurants to remain open. He's also said that businesses can decide for themselves whether to mandate mask, within their establishments.
Savannah has, and cities in Georgia have a bipolar effect. Essentially, we have in our public spaces mandates for masks, but then when you go into a private place, they may decide not to wear a mask. That leaves citizens confused. As a result, we have a lot of visitors that come to our city and they come to our city to get away from places like New York and places like Pennsylvania and California, where there are much stricter mandates. Therefore our numbers go up.
Tanzina: Mayor Johnson, are you looking for help from the federal government and if so, what would that help look like for you?
Mayor Johnson: I think that the federal government has been inconsistent in its response to the pandemic. It's been unfortunate. I think at this point, what we need is some clear, consistent direction from the federal government that incentivizes states for following their recommendations and that we're all clear on the same language. Right now, you have a federal government saying one thing, some states saying a different thing, and city saying a different thing. Therefore, when you don't have uniformity of direction, no clear vision, essentially people are confused and people get infected and that's how it happens.
Tanzina: What do you need to get vaccines into the arms of Savannah, Georgia residents as soon as possible?
Mayor Johnson: We need a central means for people to be able to call and make appointments. We need to be able to have a way to prioritize those who need the vaccine of the most and the fastest. We need to be mobile to go to places where we know that some of these vulnerable people live. We need to get our first responders taken care of as well as our various essential workers, many that work for the city of Savannah, that those who pick up trash, those who do water treatment, those who do very people-oriented things.
Then we need to make sure that we're getting people the opportunity to have the vaccine, that comes from, again, having a very robust, call center, a very robust scheduling center. Then, again, for us to do what we need to do 24 hours a day to make sure that we're getting needles into arms.
Tanzina: Mayor Johnson, we are at a very high peak in the Coronavirus pandemic just across the country. What do you see the next few months looking like particularly under a Joe Biden administration? Are you optimistic that with the transfer to a Biden administration, you will get some more help?
Mayor Johnson: I am. I'm very optimistic, although cautiously optimistic. I think that president like Biden brings a sensibility to the office that we have not had in the last four years. I think certainly a resolve to follow the scientist and follow the science. Again, I think he has a big challenge in being able to address what has happened not only over the last almost a year of really we sending mixed signals. He has to have his agencies to be able to operate together.
I think he has to talk again with cities directly about the challenges that we're facing. Again, this will be an opportunity to streamline procedures and protocols and that we're all operating. When you look at countries across the world that have been able to do better, it's because they've had a uniformed approach and not this trash dumpster fire of a response that we've had in this country.
Tanzina: We will hope for the best for the residents of your city and for cities across the country. Mayor Van Johnson is the mayor of Savannah, Georgia. Mayor Johnson, thank you so much for being with us.
Mayor Johnson: Thank you so much for the opportunity and we wish you the best.
Tanzina: Listeners, we're going to keep checking in with local leaders on vaccine distribution. Do you want to hear an official from your city on The Takeaway? Give us a call at 877-8-MY-TAKE, that's 877-869-8253. You can also send us a voice memo recorded on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.