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As COVID vaccine arrives in Atlanta, rural areas of Georgia continue to wait

Directors of clinics in smaller and rural Georgia communities tell 11Alive they're still waiting to hear when they could receive doses of a COVID-19 vaccine

ATLANTA — As they watched a COVID-19 vaccine arrive at many of the hospitals around the Atlanta area today, directors of clinics in some of Georgia's smaller communities and rural areas told 11Alive don't know when they will receive doses of the vaccine. 

They hope it is soon and could even be as early as tomorrow. 

But with healthcare workers set to be offered the vaccine first, every day they wait is another day their staff goes without the vaccine's protection. 

"I think it is always a fear that the little guy is forgotten. It is a fear with our county hospital, it is also a fear with our clinic," said Sherry Beavers, executive director of Open Arms Clinic in Toccoa, located in far northeast Georgia. 

Beavers applied for doses of a COVID-19 vaccine for her staff, but so far she hasn't received word on when the doses will arrive. 

Until then, her clinic is only seeing patients virtually.

"As the country has ramped back up with COVID-19, we have realized that our county is red, our town is red and frankly, our clinic is red," she said. 

Red -- meaning transmission of the virus is extremely high. 

Seeing patients virtually is the safest option for her staff, but Beavers admits the experience isn't ideal.

"It isn't the same as being able to assess a patient in-person and it is very difficult to say, 'Can you show me this part of your body, or that part of your body,'" she said.

That is why Beavers and her staff are doing what they can. Even small changes, to make sure their patients -- most of whom are uninsured -- are taken care of. 

"If we have a patient with congestive heart failure that we are monitoring their weight carefully, we have given them scales, diabetics monitors, and strips," Beavers said.

Georgia Department of Public Health Director Dr. Kathleen Toomey has previously told 11Alive she wants to see the COVID-19 vaccine distributed statewide the same in rural areas as metro areas.

One hold-up, though, could be the storage requirements for vaccines.

The vaccine currently being distributed from Pfizer needs to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures to extend the vaccine's shelf-life. The storage units needed can be quite expensive.  

A vaccine from Moderna, still awaiting final authorization before distribution can begin, does not need to be kept as cold. 

In some smaller and rural communities, the Moderna vaccine might be the only viable option.

Beavers said her clinic thankfully can count on nearby Stephens County Hospital

"For a rural community to have a local hospital is so important and our hospital has actually purchased two of the extremely low-temperature freezers," Beavers said.

But not every rural part of Georgia may be as lucky. Since 2010, at least nine hospitals in other rural areas of Georgia have closed or announced their closures.

Meanwhile, in downstate Valdosta, healthcare workers are also waiting.

"The only big question is when will the vaccine show up," said John Sparks, executive director of Partnership Health Center in Valdosta

Sparks told 11Alive the state health department has been very open with sharing its vaccine distribution plans. The only hold-up appears to be vaccine availability, which he said is an issue beyond the state's control. 

Currently, Sparks said his center doesn't have ultra-cold storage in place.

If a Pfizer vaccine was available, Sparks said he could use it quickly to vaccinate his staff before it expires. 

Once the general public is able to be vaccinated, long-term storage will become more of an issue, meaning at least initially, the Moderna vaccine may be the only option for patients at Partnership Health Center.

"We've ordered the refrigeration unit that is approved, it is just a matter of it's back-ordered. When will it show up," Sparks said. "Right now, we aren't in crisis mode. At some point, we may be."