Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

The long winter of COVID-19 looks to be coming to an end in Georgia.

All Georgians age 16 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting this Thursday, March 25, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday.

The long-awaited expansion comes as Georgia is set to receive another boost in the weekly shipment of vaccines, largely due to the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine that increased the state’s allotment this week to 450,000 doses, according to the governor.

“This is our ticket back to normal,” Kemp said. “We’re getting closer to that point every single day.”

Speaking at a news conference, Kemp said Georgia expects to gain another bump in vaccine doses next week from the federal government – though he was not sure yet how much more the state will receive.

So far, Georgia has distributed roughly 3.2 million vaccine doses to groups that have gradually become eligible since mid-December, including all residents ages 55 and older, health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders, judges, courtroom staff and people with physical, mental or behavioral health conditions.

The vaccine rollout has seen nearly 75% of the state’s residents ages 65 and older receive at least their first dose, setting Georgia on a path to having its most vulnerable population inoculated in the coming weeks.

Still, state officials continue to see “vaccine hesitancy” in rural areas, particularly parts of Georgia south of the Columbus-Macon-Augusta line.

In a show of confidence, Kemp said he is scheduled to get his first vaccine dose on Friday and has been talking with former University of Georgia football star Champ Bailey to spread awareness in Georgia about the efficacy – and importance – of receiving the vaccine.

“I just want to encourage everybody to get the vaccine,” Kemp said. “We’re seeing this across the country, but especially in the South, we’re seeing vaccine hesitancy.”

“There should not be hesitancy. This is a medical miracle.”

Amid hesitancy in rural Georgia, Kemp said Tuesday officials this week sent 70% of the state’s weekly vaccine doses to sites in metro Atlanta, where demand has been consistently higher.

The governor said many providers in the Atlanta area currently have appointments available for the shots, including a mass site downtown run by the federal government at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“If you’re in the metro where demand continues to be high, we’ve got great options,” Kemp said.

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

Nearly 845,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 203,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,187 Georgians.