Macon-Bibb’s COVID-19 testing too low, health administrator says

New health facility “impractical” for vaccinations

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Liz Fabian

With public attention focused on COVID-19 vaccinations, too few people are being tested for the deadly coronavirus, Macon-Bibb County health administrator said.

As COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up, Macon-Bibb County’s health administrator is worried now that not as many people are calling for tests.

“One thing I am still concerned about, is that our testing is not at sufficient levels,” Dr. Jimmie Smith told the Macon-Bibb County Board of Health during its monthly meeting Monday. “I think there’s been a lot of emphasis on vaccinations but we are having very few that are actually coming in for testing.”

Anyone wanting a test for the new coronavirus doesn’t even have to pre-register anymore.

Smith said they can show up at 171 Emery Highway Tuesday and Thursday mornings and be registered on site.

“Even with that, our testing levels have really dropped significantly. If we do 20 on a given day, that’s probably a lot and it really should be a lot much higher than that,” Smith said.

The health department will be conducting tests between 8 a.m. and noon on those two days each week, Smith said.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, staff is administering COVID-19 vaccinations in compliance with the governor’s order.

New health dept. can’t handle mass vaccinations

The configuration of the new health department parking lot and heavy traffic on Forsyth Street near the Interstate 75 exit ramp make mass vaccinations impractical, health officials said. (Liz Fabian)

Although the new facility at 1600 Forsyth St. is expected to open to the public in May, mass vaccinations will not likely be conducted at that site.

Morris Hutcheson, director of project development for the North Central Health District, told the board plans are now on hold for a vaccination awning at the new building that is nearing completion.

That section of Forsyth Street is one-way near the Interstate 75 North exit ramp.

“Because of the layout of the parking lot and its entrance from Forsyth Street, and because it’s such a busy street, we felt like it would be impractical to do a vaccination site there,” Hutcheson told the board.

Traffic could easily back up and affect interstate egress.

Smith said vaccinations are likely to continue at the Emery Highway location in the short term as they look for additional sites that would be suitable for a large number of vehicles.

He hopes to have a site selected by flu season.

Because Atrium Health Navicent and the state are already administering vaccines along Eisenhower Parkway, Smith wants the search to focus on east Macon and the south side of town for possible satellite locations for the health department.

Smith has been reaching to segments of the community to boost vaccination distribution.

Connie Williams, president of the Vineville Christian Towers Resident Council, was frustrated the property’s management, service coordinators and portfolio manager in California refused to allow health officials access to the building for vaccinations.

Williams saw that St. Paul’s Apartments had already arranged for someone to come to administer both rounds of shots to residents. She called County Commissioner Seth Clark.

The new District 5 representative coordinated with Smith and the Macon Transit Authority to transport residents to the health department for shots.

“The coordination involved in this has been amazing and the efforts by our city/county have been nothing short of heroic,” Williams stated in an email to the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

The health department also has been coordinating with early childcare and preschools to offer vaccines to those workers who might not be able to leave their jobs to get their shots.

“We’re trying our best to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so it’s one dose,” Smith said. “So that we don’t have to pull them out of the classroom or day care center for a second day.”

He is working to schedule those type of group vaccinations on Tuesdays and Thursdays when they are not giving vaccinations at the health department.

In addition to working with the school system, Smith also has reached out to churches and the Latino community to spread the word about getting the vaccine and continuing to wear masks.

He anticipates all Georgians being able to get vaccines as early as next month. Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp announced judges and courtroom personnel will be eligible for vaccines to help get the courts opened up.

Anyone wanting the vaccine should call 844-987-0099 or 478-749-0179.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas, who serves on the board of health, said she and her husband, State Senator David Lucas, got their shots a couple of weeks ago.

“The setup that’s outside, it was so efficient,” Lucas said. “You never feel like there’s anything, any one step that you’re missing or that you don’t know what to do. And then they have someone come around to the car to check on you to make sure you haven’t passed out. It is just a wonderful, wonderful thing.”

Coronavirus is waning

Smith reported the spread of the new coronavirus has slowed significantly since January.

During Tuesday’s Macon-Bibb County Hospital Authority meeting, Atrium Health Navicent CEO Delvecchio Finley reported what he believed was a new low for the number of COVID-19 patients in house.

Navicent had 24 patients in Macon and 2 each in Peach and Baldwin counties.

As of March 14, there were 789 cases in Georgia which is down from a 7-day average of 1047 per day. The positivity rate is at 5 percent.

“Which is evidence that a decline is happening, which we’re happy to see,” Finley said.

He told the authority that about 53 percent of Navicent staff has been vaccinated. The hospital also has partnered with the Macon Housing Authority to vaccinate residents in senior living communities.

“Hopefully we’re seeing some signs of light at the end of this tunnel,” Finley said.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or email [email protected]