ELBERTON, Ga. — This small city was still in shock Friday, days after state health workers raided the busiest medical clinic in the county and seized its Covid-19 vaccine supply because staffers had given doses to teachers.
Some 470 shots of the Pfizer vaccine were confiscated from the Medical Center of Elberton, a private clinic that had been the largest provider of vaccinations in Elbert County, leaving behind just enough medicine to guarantee second doses to people who have already been inoculated.
"Everything that we had tried to do up until now to vaccinate our county was just laid to waste," Dr. Jonathan Poon, who works at the clinic, told NBC News.
In addition, the Georgia Department of Public Health said it would not be providing any more vaccines to the medical center for the next six months until July 27.
"DPH took the action 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 agency said in a statement. "There is no other reason for the suspension than what we have previously stated."
But in a Jan. 29 letter to the center, the department gave no warning it was going to seize the remaining shots Tuesday.
"Moving outside the phases disrupts the allocation process and creates the potential for many elderly citizens to not receive a vaccination in a timely manner," the department stated. "Upon enrollment in Georgia’s COVID Vaccine Program, you signed a COVID Vaccination Provider Agreement which stated you and your practice would not violate any state or federal rules related to the program."
In an interview, Dr. Chris Rustin of the Department of Public Health, said the clinic's actions left them no choice.
"Going outside of the phase in almost a deliberate manner was something that we could not ignore," he said. "And we needed to make sure that others that are vaccinating understand that we have such limitations on our vaccine supply that we have to follow a plan that's been clearly communicated."
Still, as recently as Dec. 7, educators were considered by the state to be in that "essential group," Poon said, adding that they were able to vaccinate about 177 school workers before the public health department shut them down.
"We felt, you know, with the state’s guidance, that teachers were a part of that group," he said. "So as soon as we were able to move to vaccinate the essential workers, that’s what we did."
The first inkling that they might have run afoul of the state was Jan. 26 when the department called "asking whether or not we had vaccinated teachers," the doctor said.
"And at the time we, of course, believed that that was part of the proper procedure, so we said yes," Poon said. "And in less than 48 hours, the state handed down a ruling that our vaccine status was suspended and that we would no longer be able to vaccinate individuals."
The community’s reaction? "Shock," he said.
Terrie Glaude, a teacher in Elbert County, managed to squeeze in her second shot just days before the department descended on the clinic. "I was very lucky not to have to worry about that," she said.
She said she was taken aback by news of the raid and doesn’t agree "with the state mandate that teachers shouldn’t have been in the first wave of vaccinations."
"Everyone wants their kids in school," Glaude said. "And the way to keep them in school is to let our teachers be vaccinated along with the elderly population and then move down, you know, as it’s appropriate."
Marlene Lord, who is 68 and got her second dose at the clinic Thursday, said she would have gladly given her vaccination to a teacher.
"Being retired, I have the ability to stay away from it more than they do," she said. "I want the kids in school. And I think the more protection there is, the better it is."
Lord also said the public health department did a disservice to the community by taking the vaccines from the clinic.
"If something was done wrong, you know, it should have been just corrected," she said. "People here are not out to do something wrong. They have the best interest of the community in heart. You know?"
Because of the vaccine shortage, public health agencies and providers often have to make tough choices, Jennifer Kates, a public policy expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NBC News.
"There’s almost like a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ having to choose between some who’s senior who we know, if they get infected with coronavirus, has a much higher likelihood of getting sick and even dying, or someone who’s a frontline worker that we need in society," she said.
DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said they gave the clinic 30 minutes notice Tuesday that they were coming to collect the vaccines.
The weekly Elberton Star newspaper was heading to the presses that afternoon when publisher Gary Jones first learned of the raid.
"When I arrived, five unidentified people were in and around the room where TMCE stores its precious Pfizer vaccines," Jones wrote on the newspaper’s website. "When I entered the area, with my press badge clearly visible, I walked up to two men that were part of the party of five and asked them their names. They refused to answer."
Jones said he watched as two of the people removed the vaccines from the clinic’s freezer and reported that a woman whose ID badge bore the name Leah Hoffacker confirmed that they were there "by the authority of the DPH."
Hoffacker, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a medical countermeasures program manager at the public health department and her job is to dispense vaccines and medicines during public health emergencies. All the state health workers involved in the raid are members of the department's vaccination distribution team, Nydam said.
As the department investigators secured the vaccines, Jones wrote, the medical center’s office manager, Brooke McDowell, videotaped what was going on.
"Shortly after I arrived, Hoffacker asked McDowell to sign a document stating that TMCE was ‘voluntarily’ allowing this party to remove the vaccines from the ultra-cold freezer," Jones wrote. "McDowell refused to sign the document."
Jones said he asked the public health department workers if they had a warrant or court order and that clinic staffers were "crying" and "pleading" with them not to take the vaccines.
The department workers at that point appeared to reconsider removing the vaccines, Jones wrote. But after he returned to the newspaper to supervise the publication of the new edition, Jones said he was informed that the department workers had removed the vaccines from the premises.
Jones told NBC News he is filing an open records request with the state to identify the other department workers who "ran roughshod in the clinic."
The Medical Center of Elberton has filed an appeal to overturn the suspension, claiming it did not knowingly break any rules or regulations and blamed the error on "a lack of clarification from the state," the NBC affiliate reported.
The confiscated vaccines were redistributed to five other providers in rural Elbert County on the South Carolina border, along with an additional 2,100 doses, the public health department said.
One of them is Madden’s Pharmacy in the town of Elberton, where owner Don Piela told the local NBC News affiliate that they were currently vaccinating about 50 people per day and that confiscating doses from the clinic did not make sense.
"To me, that’s kind of an issue," he said. "It’s sort of like, why would you take the fire trucks away from the fire station and put the firetrucks someplace else?"
The other recipients of the confiscated vaccines are the Elbert County Health Department, Elbert Memorial Hospital, MedLink and a local Ingles grocery store.
The department said, via Nydam, that it stands by its decision to suspend The Medical Center of Elberton and is confident Elbert County residents have and will continue to have more than sufficient local access to vaccine.
Under Georgia’s guidelines, teachers aren’t eligible for the vaccine unless they’re also health care workers, first responders or 65 and older.
But the Medical Center of Elberton began vaccinating school employees last month after administering doses to the high priority workers "but before completing the vaccination of seniors," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in January.
"We’re not going to leave it on the shelf for it to ruin," McDowell told the newspaper last month. "The governor’s asked us to put shots in arms and that’s what we’re doing."
County schools have been open because many of the 3,000 or so children enrolled in the district don’t have internet service, which would allow for virtual learning, and also rely on the schools for food, clinic Dr. J. Daniel McAvoy told the newspaper.
"So we saw it as very important to get our school teachers vaccinated, and stepped out and did that," McAvoy said. "And then we saw the guidance later."
Rep. Andrew Clyde, the newly-elected Republican who represents the county, declined to comment on the vaccine confiscation, his spokesman, Russel Read, said.
Covid-19 vaccinations are already being provided to teachers from kindergarten through high school in 25 states and Washington, D.C., although in some of those states it’s limited to select counties, according to a New York Times survey of vaccination eligibility rules.
In a separate NBC News survey, teachers are eligible for a Covid-19 vaccination in 22 different states.
Georgia, however, is not one of those states on either list.
Sitting in a building near the clinic that staffers had turned into a vaccination center, Poon surveyed an empty waiting room that in the days prior to the raid had a steady, but socially distanced, stream of patients showing up for their appointments.
"It’s heartbreaking," the doctor said. "We poured everything in the past few months to try and make this a success."
Early on, Poon said, they invested $7,000 out of their own pockets on an expensive freezer capable of storing the vaccines because they wanted to be part of pandemic solution.
"We were humble," he said. "We did not expect a pat on the back. We thought that this was part of the plan."
Gosk reported from Elberton, Georgia, Strickler from Washington D.C., Cavazuti from New York City and Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey.