Georgia Carona

The news comes as the state sets new records for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations

Georgia hospitals from Atlanta to Albany to Gainesville to Conyers finally began long-awaited vaccinations of their own workers Thursday, and a second vaccine candidate won an important endorsement. But as sparks of hope appeared, the state also faced new challenges in battling the pandemic and a grave increase in cases.

Georgia was among several states Thursday to report that their expected allotments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for the coming weeks have been cut by 40%, amid conflicting explanations and denials from the federal vaccination operation and Pfizer.

Hospitals in several Georgia locations are overflowing with patients but short on nurses to care for them. And the state Thursday recorded an all-time record of net new COVID-19 confirmed and probable cases, at 7,777.

Mixed emotions were on full display at Piedmont Rockdale Hospital in Conyers, where five health care workers from across the Piedmont system sat down to get vaccinated. The hospital is one of 13 in Georgia reporting their emergency room crowding as severe.

“We want to get the vaccine because we’re exhausted,” said Dr. Gayla Dillard, a surgeon at Piedmont Healthcare, who got vaccinated Thursday. She has a colleague in the ICU with COVID-19, whose trachea tube operation she had to do.

Shannan Browning, a neonatal ICU nurse, came to tears after getting her shot at Piedmont. “Just knowing how hard my coworkers are working,” she said. “It’s really the ICU nurses, the ER nurses, the nurses on (regular hospital wards), the respiratory therapists…nurses work a 12 to 13-hour shift every day anyway. But they’re working those many more days a week than they normally do. And those days are just constant.”

Gov. Brian Kemp acknowledged the hospitals’ plight as he visited Grady Memorial Hospital Thursday to watch the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, receive the vaccine shot herself and to announce continued funding for temporary staff.

Watching the vaccinations after nine months of managing the state’s pandemic response, he said, “It’s almost overwhelming, quite honestly.”

He announced that he had agreed with state House and Senate leaders to extend extra staffing efforts for hospitals and nursing homes, appearing to refer to a contract with the Jackson Healthcare staffing agency that was set to expire. The state has put $250 million of its federal pandemic relief funding into the contract for this year. The state leaders agreed to dedicate nearly $70 million more in order to extend the workforce through early March, Kemp said.

“Today I can tell you the state has done everything in its power to support our hospitals on this front,” Kemp said.