Another GA hospital vaccinated 100s of ineligible people. Why DPH says this one is different

After Floyd Medical Center vaccinated their workers, the Rome hospital opened it up to family members. A total of 766 have since been vaccinated even though many are not in the approved priority group. (photo by Floyd Medical Center)

A northwest Georgia hospital confirmed to the FOX 5 I-Team it has vaccinated hundreds of people not yet eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Those are relatives of employees at the Floyd Medical Center in Rome.

"I made that decision that in order to have staff available that it would be a good idea to also make it available to those living in the household," explained hospital CEO Kurt Stuenkel.

Under state guidelines, because of limited supplies, Georgians are being vaccinated in phases. As a group, family members of medical staff aren’t eligible yet unless they fit one of the approved criteria like working as a first responder or at least 65 years old.

Stuenkel said at the time their vaccines arrived, his hospital had a record number of COVID-19 patients and 30% worker absenteeism.

So, he made a decision no other Georgia hospital CEO has made: offer vaccines to any family member in the immediate household or in regular contact with employees. Floyd Medical Center employs 3,300 people.

FMC said 766 non-employees have since received shots who were likely outside the priority level, although some could have been caregivers or over 65 and would be eligible anyway.

Why would vaccinating a family member ensure that a hospital worker could stay on the job?

"Family members could come down with COVID and then the employee would have to be home taking care of them," Stuenkel said.

The hospital didn’t try to keep their family vaccination plan a secret. In the January 14, 2021 edition of the Rome News-Tribune, FMC public relations manager Dan Bevels said they "have begun offering vaccines to family members of their staff who are eligible. By doing so, they hope to reduce the risk of exposure for employees."

Floyd Medical Center was the first in GA to use convalescent plasma to treat COVID patients. (video image from Floyd Medical Center)

CEO Stuenkel’s wife was vaccinated. The FOX 5 I-Team learned the adult children of another employee got their shots, even though they don’t live at home.

Two weeks ago, Floyd Medical stopped any new vaccinations of non-employees, although some are still getting their second shot even now.

"Once we heard that the state was insisting on strict adherence two weeks ago we dialed it back," said Stuenkel.

That was just before news broke about the Medical Center of Elberton. That facility vaccinated 177 teachers, again a group not included in the current Phase 1-A enhanced priority level.

The Georgia Department of Public Health punished that medical center by suspending all vaccine deliveries for the next six months.

DPH learned this week about Floyd Medical Center’s vaccine decision. DPH Incident Commander for Vaccine Planning Dr. Chris Rustin said the CEO did not get prior permission, even though he did notify the local health department of his plans.

Was Rustin upset?

"Concerned," he admitted. "We’ve been very clear we have limited supplies of the vaccine and that the phases are designed for a specific purpose."

When the Medical Center of Elberton admitted vaccinating 177 teachers, Georgia's DPH suspended their vaccine shipments for six months. No decision has been made on Floyd Medical Center.

But unlike Elbert County, DPH has not suspended vaccine deliveries to Floyd Medical.

"I really don’t think there’s an apples to apples comparison," said Dr. Rustin. "However, when it comes to punishment no decision has been made."

He said DPH has started an investigation.

Floyd Medical Center was one of the first in Georgia last year to encounter a COVID patient. The first to try experimental plasma therapy, and now a leader in the Southeastern US for using monoclonal antibodies to help beat back the virus. So far 500 patients have received that therapy.

FMC was originally classified as a "closed pod" for vaccines— meaning they were not expected to use their vaccines outside the hospital. That's why the CEO thought the rules allowed family members to be vaccinated if they had extra shots.

CEO Stuenkel said they are now sharing supplies with the health department and the public. The hospital has vaccinated a total of 6500 people so far, including its staff and family members.

"Heck, nobody’s perfect," he said. "We did this for the best motives. In order to make our staff available. Then when we learned we didn’t have the latitude that we thought we did, we’re back in compliance."

And hoping that decision doesn’t come back to hurt them.

WATCH: FOX 5 Atlanta live news coverage