May 12, 2020 Atlanta - Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of Georgia Department of Public Health, speaks as Governor Brian Kemp looks during a press briefing to update on COVID-19 at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Brian Kemp assigns a top aide to Department of Public Health

Georgia’s increasingly strained public health department is getting some reinforcements. 

We’re told that Caylee Noggle, the chief management officer of Gov. Brian Kemp’s office, will now serve as Dr. Kathleen Toomey’s chief of staff to run the operations side of the burgeoning department. It’s a new role that will allow Toomey, a physician, focus on the medical side of the response, one department insider says. 

The move, finalized earlier this week, comes as the state’s public health apparatus has come under new stress. The agency is fast preparing a team of 1,000 additional staffers charged with tracing and testing for coronavirus. And a series of data mishaps on the DPH website has sparked criticism. From our AJC colleagues Willoughby Mariano and Scott Trubey:

In the latest bungling of tracking data for the novel coronavirus, a recently posted bar chart on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website appeared to show good news: new confirmed cases in the counties with the most infections had dropped every single day for the past two weeks.

In fact, there was no clear downward trend. The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks. Experts agree that cases in those five counties were flat when Georgia began to reopen late last month.

DPH changed the graph Monday after more than a day of online mockery, public concern and a letter from a state representative. Gov. Brian Kemp’s office issued an apology and its spokespeople said they’d never make this kind of mistake again.

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Meanwhile, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and budget crisis, the state’s Department of Community Health canceled its monthly board meeting, which was scheduled for today. Seems as if it didn’t have anything to talk about, according to our AJC colleague James Salzer.

“Due to no agenda items, this month’s Board Meeting has been cancelled,” according to a notice sent out last week.

Besides the ongoing pandemic, DCH, like other state agencies, is being asked to present a plan to cut 14% from next year’s budget by next week. The cuts were requested because the pandemic’s economic downturn has dried up state tax revenue.

Typically, the DCH board is briefed on the agency’s budget proposals each year and approves them before they are submitted to the governor for his consideration. The agency – which runs Medicaid, the State Health Benefit Plan for teachers, state employees and retirees and several other health care programs, would have to reduce spending about $500 million to meet the 14% request.

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In Rome on Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp talked about whether his approach to reopening Georgia’s economy would be vindicated down the road, even as other states are taking a more deliberate approach: 

“I haven’t really got time to speculate or be a prognosticator – or criticize any other state. I think if people look at my remarks over this whole pandemic, I haven’t criticized anybody. Nobody has been through this. 

“There’s tough decisions that you have to make, there are tough decisions that the mayor has to make, that the hospital has to make. But everybody is making those decisions to try to keep our people safe. I have been making decisions based on that, as well as fighting the new war that we have – and that is to bring our economy back.

“History will decide who is right in all of this. I’m not too worried about that. I want to continue to focus on keeping our people safe, but also safely getting our people back to work.”

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Already posted: Gov. Brian Kemp has used his emergency powers to extend an executive order that limits legal liability for Georgia’s hospitals and medical workers during the coronavirus pandemic, while also including a provision that specifically excludes abortion providers from the protections.

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The Los Angeles Times reports that federal agents have seized a cellphone belonging to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., as part of an investigation into controversial stock trades just prior to the economic downturn associated with the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s opponents immediately went into social media overdrive. 

She also sold stocks valued at $1.8 million in some firms whose shares nosedived even as she and her husband invested in companies like Citrix, which provides work-from-home software, and Oracle, a computer technology company. 

“Call your office,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who is among the 20 candidates challenging the incumbent. 

Loeffler said last month she and her husband, the chief executive of Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange, would no longer trade in stocks for individual companies. They sold off their shares in all other companies except for ICE.

Loeffler has denied wrong-doing and said any trades made on her behalf were conducted by financial advisers who acted independently. She also asked to be removed from a Senate agriculture subcommittee that has oversight of commodity trading firms.

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Lee Merritt and Benjamin Crump, attorneys representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, were on SiriusXM’s “The Joe Madison Show” on Wednesday.

A grand jury has yet to indict the white father and son accused of accosting and killing the 25-year-old black man in Brunswick, Ga. But Madison asked where the trial is likely to occur. Said Merritt:

“Ideally, you want it in the community where the crime happened. But the south Georgia community has proven that the legal apparatus is not prepared to dispense justice to the black community. So now you have to take it somewhere else.

“Right now, it went to a new district attorney up in Cobb County. North Georgia. Heavy metropolitan area. It looks a lot like Brunswick but up in the north. We believe that that's the best place for it. And that’s where it is now. But you must believe the defense attorney wants to get it out of there and get it back to his playground.

“And so he’s going to be moving for a change of venue, and everything we do and say from a community perspective, will impact whether they are successful.”

Then what Merritt had to say became more than interesting:

“I have to say this to your listeners. Not only in this trial, but in any trial, one of the best things you can do is close your mouth about your opinion on the case, and just take in the facts.

“I know you want to see justice for Ahmaud. I know you want to say this was a terrible thing and these white terrorizers should go to jail or get the death penalty, but the more that you say that, the more that you post that, and certainly if you get called for jury duty and you say that kind of thing, you’re going to be off the jury, and they’re going to get a vanilla jury that’s going to help exonerate these men.”

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Some statistics worth your attention:

-- By the end of the week, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia, which stood at 1,517 as of 7 p.m. Wednesday, could surpass the number of Georgians who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. That conflict, fought through the 1960s and into the 1970s, claimed 1,582 Georgians.

-- According to GeorgiaVotes.com, requests for Republican absentee ballots for the June 9 primaries have dropped below the 50% mark for the first time. 

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In endorsement news:

-- The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List predictably endorsed state Sen. Renee Unterman in her GOP bid for Seventh District congressional seat. She was the sponsor of the 2019 “heartbeat” bill, which would bar most abortions in Georgia. Signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, a federal judge has placed a hold on the statute.

-- State Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, is backing Teresa Tomlinson’s U.S. Senate campaign to unseat Republican incumbent David Perdue.

--- U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath is among 22 candidates nationwide who received a stamp of approval from former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his Win the Era leadership PAC.

-- Tim Echols, a Republican member of the state Public Service Commission, endorsed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s bid for election this morning. Read more here.

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