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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A row of syringes on the desk of associate health nurse Addie Allen at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Ga. on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020.

The vaccine rollout in Northwest Georgia continues to lag behind statewide numbers, and seven counties close to Chattanooga are well below state averages.

On average, the seven counties have reported about 34,500 people per 100,000 people have been vaccinated, which is well below the state average of nearly 56,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.

Likewise, an average of 16% of people are fully vaccinated in Dade, Catoosa, Chattooga, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties. To compare, 23% of Georgia is fully vaccinated — which is still near the bottom of the list in terms of states in the country.

Local public health experts are saying many factors are contributing to the low numbers. The slow and sometimes confusing rollout didn't help. The suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine added more confusion and hesitancy to an already underwhelming response by residents in the state, and now the state is playing catch up.

Over the past few weeks in Catoosa, Whitfield and Walker counties, access to the COVID-19 vaccine has increased, with local public health departments offering the vaccine without the need of an appointment. This was done in hopes to streamline the process and get more people vaccinated. It also is supposed to help with older people who might not be as tech-savvy to make an appointment online.

The move is a similar one to when COVID-19 testing went from appointment-only to a walk-in procedure.

Logan Boss, spokesman for the Northwest Georgia Health District, said 60% of the vaccines given in the 10-county district have been given by local health departments and the rest have been administered by a growing number of private providers.

Boss added public health has largely been using the Moderna vaccine, some Pfizer and has returned to using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after the temporary pause.

"Our use of the one-dose J&J has been limited primarily to pop-up clinics, jails, the homeless and homebound and teachers in some school systems," Boss said in an email Monday. "We expect the J&J pause to increase hesitancy for all three vaccines. Some people who were thinking they'd probably get vaccinated pretty soon have become more tentative, choosing to wait to see what other vaccine side effects might emerge. Some who were already disinclined to get vaccinated have become more adamant."

Boss said throughout the early spring, vaccine demand has been dwindling despite statewide efforts to promote vaccine acceptance. That includes the state trying to reach and target Black and Hispanic communities.

Ashley Deverell is the immunization coordinator for the North Georgia Health District, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties. Deverell said that as vaccination appointments have decreased in the past two weeks, the department has had to get creative with vaccination outreach.

"We began working with schools and local businesses to come on site to reduce barriers to vaccination," Deverell said. "We have also started allowing walk-in vaccinations in Whitfield and Murray."

Vaccinations have slowed in Whitfield County from February, when over 20,000 were administered. That number fell to under 13,000 in March and is now at 8,886 in April. In Murray County, vaccinations peaked in March at 3,238 but have since fallen to 1,987 over halfway through April.

"Still, for most people, getting any COVID vaccine as soon as possible is the medically sensible thing to do," Boss said. "The known and potential benefits of the vaccines outweigh their known and potential risks."

For more information on how to get vaccinated in Northwest Georgia, visit nwgapublichealth.org and nghd.org.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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