The Jolt: A pandemic on the rise in rural America. And in Georgia, especially.

A masked Gov. Brian Kemp visited Albany on Tuesday, touching base with health care workers tasked with controlling the nation’s most intense pandemic hotspot.

A masked Gov. Brian Kemp visited Albany on Tuesday, touching base with health care workers tasked with controlling the nation's most intense pandemic hotspot:

The governor toured a temporary medical pod that's been stationed at Phoebe Putney Hospital since April 15, and said the response in Albany has fast become a template for how the state handles the disease elsewhere.

But this was the real news:

One of those hospital units is now being set up in Gainesville, the heart of Georgia's prized poultry industry. At least 400 poultry workers have tested positive for the disease, and officials have scrambled to try to protect workers while aiming to prevent disruptions to the $41 billion industry.

The Washington Post reports the following this morning:

Rural areas of the country, where 15 percent of Americans live, are seeing a rise in new daily cases even as the numbers decline in New York City and other urban centers that are now past their peak, according to Carrie Henning-Smith, a rural health researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. These new hot spots aren't seeing the declines experts had hoped for, even after weeks of social distancing.

…In the two-week period between April 13 and 27, novel coronavirus cases increased 125 percent in non-metro counties, compared to 68 percent in metro counties, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. During that time period, deaths from the virus increased 169 percent in non-metro counties and 113 percent in metro counties.

The newspaper reported that the county with the highest death-per-capita rate was Randolph County, Ga. But you knew that. More from an Associated Press report with a Dawson, Ga., dateline:

More than a quarter of people in Terrell County live in poverty, the local hospital shuttered decades ago, and businesses have been closing for years, sending many young and able fleeing for cities. Those left behind are sicker and more vulnerable; even before the virus arrived, the life expectancy for men here was six years shorter than the American average.

Rural people, African Americans and the poor are more likely to work in jobs not conducive to social distancing, like the food processing plant in nearby Mitchell County where four employees died of COVID-19. They have less access to health care and so more often delay treatment for chronic conditions; in southwest Georgia, the diabetes rate of 16 percent is twice as high as in Atlanta. Transportation alone can be a challenge, so that by the time they make it to the hospital, they're harder to save.

At least 21 people have died from COVID-19 in this county, and dozens more in the neighboring rural communities. 

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As we told you over the weekend, the financial disclosure document listing the assets of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, left much unsaid. Today, the New York Times reports that last-minute changes by Intercontinental Exchange allowed Loeffler to cash in on her stock shares shortly before joining the U.S. Senate:

Ms. Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate in December and is now in a competitive race to hold her seat, appears to have received stock and other awards worth more than $9 million from the company, Intercontinental Exchange, according to a review of securities filings by The New York Times, Ms. Loeffler's financial disclosure form and interviews with compensation and accounting experts. That was on top of her 2019 salary and bonus of about $3.5 million.

The additional compensation came in the form of shares, stock options and other instruments that Ms. Loeffler had previously been granted but was poised to forfeit by leaving the company.

The newspaper reports that none of this was illegal or in violation of Senate rules, but it undercuts Loeffler’s claims that she sacrificed earnings to join Congress.

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Stacey Abrams and other potential veep picks might have some competition. A new committee backed by a prominent Georgia mega-donor is pushing Joe Biden, the Democratic party's presumed presidential nominee, to select Michelle Obama as his running mate.

The "Draft Michelle Obama" committee touts the former first lady as a candidate who can "not only benefit the Democratic ticket this November but also help lead this country to be more just and caring," the group said in a statement.

The committee's organizers say the group is backed by several prominent fundraisers -- including Mack Wilbourn, a prominent Atlanta airport concessionaire who has hosted events for President Barack Obama at his Midtown mansion and for Biden last year.

The former vice president recently told KDKA he would pick Michelle Obama "in a heartbeat" were she interested, but added that he doesn't think she has "any desire to live near the White House again."

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In Washington, Senate Republicans led by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have balked at a fourth trillion-dollar spending bill aimed at bailing out state and local governments that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.

But at the state Capitol, Georgia Republicans say the help is desperately needed. From our AJC colleague James Salzer:

The leaders of the Georgia House and Senate budget committees this week joined the chorus of state and local officials asking Congress to back more aid to local governments in the wake of the coronavirus recession.

… Last week, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, and Gov. Brian Kemp's budget director Kelly Farr, sent a memo to state agencies asking for plans to cut 14% from their budgets in the coming year. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

England and Tillery sent a letter Monday to the state's congressional delegation lending their voice of support for more federal aid.

"As the chairs of the appropriations committees of the Georgia General Assembly, we are formally requesting your support for the timely approval and disbursement of these funds to close the unprecedented gap in dollars required to maintain a conservative and lean government framework of services for the state of Georgia and our constituents," the letter read.

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A firm date for the resumption of the 2020 session of the Legislature has yet to be set, but the new fiscal reality is likely to mean that some measures thought dead in March could be revived. Over at Georgia Health News, Andy Miller is singling out a tobacco tax increase:

In the Georgia General Assembly a few months ago, a bill to raise the cigarette levy, sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), failed to get a vote in committee before Crossover Day. That would ordinarily mean it is dead for the year. But 2020 has not been an ordinary legislative year. The session was suspended due to the pandemic and is poised to resume next month, with the main spotlight being on the budget crisis…

Georgia's tobacco tax, at 37 cents a pack, trails only those in Missouri and Virginia. Increasing the tax on a pack by $1.50 would bring $425 million in annual revenue…

You can also expect supporters of casino legislation, thought dead for the session, to push their bills as partial solutions to the financial crisis.

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Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan this morning announced that he will cut his state salary by 14% beginning July 1 – a nod to the cuts state department heads are being asked to make. Read more here.

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We're told that Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel will report that he has raised nearly $531,000 and enters the final five weeks of his nonpartisan campaign with $686,000 cash on hand.

Bethel is being opposed – a rarity for an incumbent justice – by former GOP state lawmaker Beth Beskin, who had originally intended to run for the seat being vacated this year by Justice Keith Blackwell.

But that contest was "disappeared." We conveniently explain why in today's print column. Beskin carried over $166,249.85 from that one race to her contest against Bethel. And so we have this from a Bethel campaign spokesman:

"In addition to the money raised from supporters across the state, Justice Bethel loaned the campaign the exact amount of cash on hand his opponent had in her account that she had raised while running for a different seat on the court. She chose not to return those funds to donors, many of whom are strong supporters of Justice Bethel in this race."

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U.S. Senate candidate Teresa Tomlinson unveiled her second TV ad hours after Democratic rival Jon Ossoff took the same step. The former Columbus mayor's 30-second spot highlighted her trove of endorsements, including several from civil rights leaders.

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In other advertising news, Ninth District candidate Kevin Tanner has released a folksy ad that features the state lawmaker fumbling over Instagram and navigating Twitter while his daughter, Kaitlyn, trumpets his commitment to his faith, family and community.

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The American Conservative Union, one of the nation's highest profile right-leaning political organizations, is out with its annual ranking of elected officials based on votes taken in 2019.

In Georgia, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, received the highest score among the congressional delegation, followed by Reps. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, and Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville. The lowest-ranking Republicans according to the ACU are U.S. Sen. David Perdue and U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall of Lawrenceville.

On the General Assembly level, state Rep. Sheri Gilligan of Cumming, received the highest scores among Republicans, followed by state Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick and Reps. Michael Caldwell of Woodstock, Colton Moore of Trenton, Ken Pullen of Zebulon, David Stover of Newnan (who resigned last year) and Scot Turner of Holly Springs.

The group noted that Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah received the highest score among Senate Democrats. On the House side that honor fell to Rep. Valencia Stovall of Forest Park, whose score beat at least one GOP member.

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