Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans to expand state spending on hospital staffing at a press conference at the Georgia Capitol Monday. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to mount, the state will spend another $125 million to help hospitals hire 1,500 new staff with dozens of them directed to rural hospitals, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday.
“I think the additional staffing that we talked about and announced today is just going to continue to help them with the surge that we’re going through, and especially for our hospitals on the coast, south Georgia and our more rural hospitals in the central part of the state and other places, and just them having the certainty that we’re going to continue the funding that we have and extend that into December, I think it’s going to give them a big boost, but also be able to keep the folks that they have and not be lured to go somewhere else and work,” Kemp said.
Kemp, who allowed the state’s public health emergency executive order to expire at the beginning of July, has been facing pressure to act as the delta strain of COVID-19 continues to spread among unvaccinated Georgians.
The additional funding announced Monday will double the number of temporary workers the state has dispatched to hospitals around the state struggling with staffing shortages.
The arrangement is possible through a continuation of the state’s no-bid contract with a private Alpharetta-based staffing firm, Jackson Healthcare and its HWL subsidiary, that was worth about $434 million as of July 23, Georgia Health News reported.
But at a press conference Monday with Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, he ruled out taking further steps that he argued might damage the economy.
“Georgia will remain open for business. We will not shut down,” he said. “We will not prevent families from earning a paycheck. Georgians know the risk of this virus. They know we have the tools at our disposal to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death.”
The Georgia Department of Public Health reported 7,478 cases on Friday, up from 5,861 the week before. Georgia’s confirmed death toll reached 18,987 last week after 45 more people died Friday, and another 2,991 deaths are suspected to have been from COVID-19.
Also troubling is the number of patients seeking treatment in Georgia’s hospitals. As of Sunday, about 88% of Georgia’s intensive care unit beds are in use, as are about 75% of emergency department beds and 42% of adult ventilators, according to state data.
Some hospital leaders have resorted to pleading with Georgians to take precautions like wearing masks and getting vaccinated as ballooning numbers of COVID-19 patients caused some major systems to turn away ambulance traffic. As of Monday morning, 56 of the 142 medical centers tracked on the Georgia Coordinating Center’s website had severe overcrowding.
But critics say Kemp’s plan is too little, too late.
“I recognize that hospital systems across the state are being pummeled by this pandemic, and are also facing serious and significant workforce challenges, and we need to address those workforce challenges,” said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman. “But the better long-term strategy is not to talk about increasing the numbers of health care workers we can put in place over the next few months but how we’re going to double down on reducing the impact of the pandemic by preventing people from getting sick.”
State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Gwinnett Democrat and a scientist who teaches microbiology at Emory University, agreed that a more preventative approach is needed.
“I think the funding for more hospital staff is great, but, and hear me out on this, how about we do things that might actually keep people OUT of the hospital in the first place,” Clark said in a tweet. “Governing is hard—I get it. But at a certain point you have to make tough decisions!”
Medical experts agree that vaccines are safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 and weakening symptoms in breakthrough cases, but Georgia remains near the bottom of the country in terms of vaccination rates.
State workers will get an extra day off as a vaccination incentive
Kemp also announced Monday a day off for state employees Sept. 3, which is the Friday before Labor Day. He’s hoping they will use the time off to get their vaccines, but he ruled out ordering them to do so.
“I don’t think vaccine mandates or mask mandates or mandates in general work. I think at this point, if anybody out there trusts the government — it’s probably not many people when you have the president of the United States who says get vaccinated, take your mask off, then they reverse that policy. There’s misinformation out there. And look, I get it. There’s vaccine hesitancy in the South.”
Less than 40% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic, compared with just under 51% for the nation.
“If you look at the numbers in Georgia, we’re doing better than Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and several other states,” Kemp said. “There’s real vaccine hesitancy. We’ve talked about that. Dr. Toomey talked about that with the Tuskegee experiment with African Americans. There’s a lot of conservative, white, rural Republicans that have vaccine hesitancy.
“I think (mandating) just pushes people into a corner. You see where mask mandates are causing fights at sporting events and on airplanes and other things. People know how to deal with the virus.”
Kemp, who has been vaccinated, has urged Georgians to talk to their medical provider or faith leader about getting vaccinated and make the decision that is right for them.
A Republican governor up for re-election in a swing state, Kemp will soon face the judgment of his base, including those who are vocally opposed to any sort of COVID-19 restrictions.
But there is no doubt that mask and vaccine mandates would result in better health outcomes, Heiman said, and instituting them would not be overreach.
“When the legislature several sessions ago came out with legislation outlawing the use of mobile devices and texting while driving, that was after giving people the information about it, requesting that they do it, and recognizing that that alone wasn’t going to be successful,” he said. “And we have literally over 100 years of evidence that demonstrates the value and importance of vaccine mandates.”
Heiman pointed to the series of vaccinations already required to attend public schools as well as polling that shows a significant portion of the vaccine hesitant say they would get the vaccine if required.
“It’s a critical public health tool because it’s not just about individuals making decisions for their health, or individuals being responsible in a way that impacts their health, it’s about decisions that impact everyone that each of us comes in contact with,” he said. “And if we’re really concerned about the impact of this pandemic on children and families and on the economy of our state, it’s critical that we use these critical public health tools of vaccine mandates in settings, like schools and universities.”
A look at COVID-19 on Georgia campuses
The University System of Georgia has announced it will strongly encourage but not require masks, and Kemp also put the kibosh on calls for a statewide K-12 school mask mandate Monday, saying the decision is better left in the hands of local leaders.
“I’m very confident that they know how to deal with any issues,” he said. “If they need to go virtual for a week or two weeks or delay as some systems are doing, I’m certainly supportive of that. But we also have systems that this is going to be their third full week of instruction, and they’re doing just fine, very few issues and they’re plowing ahead, and that is why I think the best approach is a local one.”
Schools have been ground zero for the latest COVID-19 surge as teachers, parents and administrators try to balance the ideal of in-person education with the reality of rapidly filling emergency departments.
In the last week, cases have more than doubled among the youngest Georgians — cases among newborns to 4-year-olds are up 111% and up 117% among those 5 to 17.
Young people typically only experience mild symptoms from COVID-19, but they can develop severe problems in rare cases — 12 Georgians under 18 have died from COVID-19 — and experts warn they can pick up the illness at school and pass it on to more vulnerable people without showing symptoms.
Medical groups including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatricians recommend in-person learning with a focus on safety measures, including universal masks and vaccinations for those who are eligible, nearly everyone 12 and older.
On Aug. 11, Burke County Schools in Waynesboro announced it would be mandating masks starting Monday, but by Friday, Superintendent Angela Williams had decided to keep students at home instead, citing more than 40 positive tests among students last week.
Nine Georgia school districts have announced full switches to online learning, according to the Associated Press.
Others are instead quarantining classrooms or entire school buildings.
Kendrick Middle School in Clayton County was one of the latest to move online following an increase in COVID-19 cases. Children there will be studying online at least through Aug. 27, according to the district, and bus drivers will be dropping off breakfast and lunch along their routes.
The spread of COVID-19 among young Georgians has led parents to seek testing, but many have complained that the tests are much harder to come by than they were this time last year.
Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, vowed that it will soon be easier to get tested in Georgia.
Health experts use test data to chart the progress of the disease, and they say high positivity rates like Georgia is experiencing typically mean not enough tests are being carried out.
“Testing is a really important part of where we are now,” Toomey said. “As we’re seeing increasing cases, we’re also seeing an increasing proportion of percent positivity rates among the tests we’re doing, almost 17%. So knowing that, we know we need to be doing more testing.”
Toomey said the health department will ramp up its own local testing and partner with hospitals to ensure they are not overwhelmed with people who have mild symptoms and are only seeking a test.
“We’re working with the hospitals, and I want to reassure everyone because I know that some areas have not had easy access to testing. In the coming week, we are making that easier throughout the state,” Toomey said.
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