A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey arrive for a press conference in March, as operations were getting underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest community vaccination center in the southeast. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey arrive for a press conference in March, as operations were getting underway for Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become the largest community vaccination center in the southeast. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

More allegations have emerged about Georgia officials’ management of the pandemic, just as the state stands on the precipice of another surge.

A former attorney for the state says she was fired after she questioned a $14 million, eight-month contract for scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations, awarded without competitive bidding.

Jennifer Dalton, a career government lawyer who became chief legal officer for the Georgia Department of Public Health in the midst of the pandemic, says she also rankled her bosses by giving The Atlanta Journal-Constitution more than 15,000 pages of emails between public health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and Gov. Brian Kemp and his staff.

The newspaper had requested the emails under the Georgia Opens Records law.

Earlier this year, a story was published based on the emails. The AJC reported that Kemp had repeatedly disregarded advice from public health experts, that the governor’s office had largely dictated public messaging about the coronavirus, and that the state withheld information showing the pandemic was worsening as Kemp relaxed safety measures.

Dalton is seeking compensation under the state’s whistleblower protection law.

Her complaint raises questions about the state health department’s stewardship over millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid, and they come while the super-contagious delta variant of COVID-19 threatens to inflame the crisis all over again.

Georgia’s case numbers have tripled over the past three weeks. The 7-day-rolling average of probable and confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia was 1,065 on Thursday, up from 356 on June 24. Meanwhile, just 37.5% of the state’s total population, including children not yet eligible to get the vaccine, are fully vaccinated, compared to 48.3% of the population nationwide, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Here is a look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, talks about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out during a press conference at the Georgia capitol in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, talks about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out during a press conference at the Georgia capitol in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Fired lawyer says she refused to redact emails

Dalton spent 23 years in the state attorney general’s office before joining the Department of Public Health last October. Almost immediately, she said in her whistleblower complaint, she began objecting to what she calls “potential violations of state and federal law.”

She discovered that the agency’s legal office was a “fiasco,” her complaint alleges. The office had failed to respond to thousands of records requests, exposing the state to legal fees and possible judgments for violating the open records law, Dalton says.

Among the requests was one the AJC had submitted in May 2020 seeking the emails. Dalton said she was asked to redact them, which would have violated state law.

Then in February, Toomey assigned Dalton an unusual task, according to her lawyer: to research a private legal matter involving her friends Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Foundation, and his wife, Kayanne, a one-time Miss Georgia. During the same period, the Masseys’ son — Lewis Massey, who was Georgia’s secretary of state from 1996 to 1999 — was lobbying the health agency to award a contract for a call center for scheduling vaccinations to one of his clients, Maximus Inc.

Dalton says she told other officials that public health districts across the state already had their own vaccination scheduling systems. By rushing through the Maximus contract, she worried that the agency “would be viewed as sneaking the contract through a non-bid process costing taxpayers millions of dollars for no reason.”

In a tense exchange, Toomey yelled at Dalton, according to her lawyer. “I’m not going to argue with you,” Dalton quoted Toomey as saying. “Get it done.”

Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for Toomey, said the health agency does not comment “on matters of potential, pending or post litigation.”

Kemp’s spokeswoman, Mallory Blount, also declined to comment. When the AJC published its story in March based on the emails, a spokesman for Kemp disputed some of the story’s conclusions and said many other states “fared no better against COVID-19 than Georgia did.”

Piedmont Hospital announced last week it is mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for staff members starting Sept. 1. (Christine Tannous / Christine.Tannous@ajc.com)
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Piedmont Hospital announced last week it is mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for staff members starting Sept. 1. (Christine Tannous / Christine.Tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Christine Tannous / Christine.Tannous@ajc.com

Credit: Christine Tannous / Christine.Tannous@ajc.com

Piedmont will require staff to be vaccinated

The Piedmont Healthcare system will require doctors, hospital leaders and new employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Sept. 1, the Atlanta-based nonprofit organization said last week. Other employees at Piedmont facilities will be required to get COVID shots “in the near future,’' Piedmont said in a statement.

While Piedmont’s size and geographic reach magnify the impact of its decision, it is not the first system operating in Georgia to take the step of requiring employee immunizations.

Earlier this month, Trinity Health announced that employees at its 91 hospitals would be required to be vaccinated. Trinity, a Michigan-based Catholic health care system, has three hospitals in Georgia: St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens, St. Mary’s Good Samaritan in Greensboro and St. Mary’s Sacred Heart Hospital in Lavonia.

Hospitals nationally have begun to mandate the shots since a federal court rejected a lawsuit by employees who challenged the vaccination requirement at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.

John R. Lewis Elementary School music teacher Elena Prestwood welcomes a student wearing a face shield and a face mask into the school building on the first day of in-person learning in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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John R. Lewis Elementary School music teacher Elena Prestwood welcomes a student wearing a face shield and a face mask into the school building on the first day of in-person learning in March. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

DeKalb schools reimposes mask mandates

DeKalb County schools is making masks mandatory once again for students and staff while indoors and on buses, regardless of vaccination status.

School mask policies vary across the metro Atlanta area. The Clayton County district said last week that it will still require students and staff to wear masks when classes begin in August. Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett students and staff have the option to don face coverings, while Atlanta Public Schools said it was reviewing the new CDC guidance. Presently, APS requires masks inside buildings.

Staff writer Kristal Dixon and Andy Miller of Georgia Health News contributed to this story.