Ending state of emergency could cut wide swath in Georgia

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

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

Some worry food aid could be reduced, health care workforce squeezed

Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to end the 15-month state of emergency on July 1 is worrying workers, citizens and others who benefitted from the temporary measures put into place to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kemp’s administration used his added powers to change millions of Georgia lives in ways big and small, from relaxing rules on licensing medical professionals, to easing weight limits on some commercial trucks, to accepting increased federal aid for families in need.

What happens once the emergency declaration ends is uncertain. Kemp has said he will issue a new order in its place next week, though he has given few details.

“We worked together — along with the Department of Public Health, dozens of state agencies, local leaders, private sector partners, and countless others — to protect both lives and livelihoods,” Kemp wrote in his announcement Tuesday. “Our economic momentum is strong, and people are getting back to normal. We have emerged resilient, and I thank all Georgians for doing their part.”

The other order he will issue next week, the statement said, “will continue aiding the state and Georgia job creators as they fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Tony Marshall is among those with a stake in the outcome: He represents nursing homes in the state, where approximately 6,000 nurses’ aides were allowed to postpone weeks of required training. Instead, they trained on the job after an eight-hour course.

Marshall has met with the governor’s staff, urging them not to end the program yet.

“Everybody understands the dynamics related to work force in our setting is at its most difficult period ever,” Marshall said. “I mean, we would certainly, if we lost 6,000 people, be at crisis level.”

Vicky Kimbrell, a lawyer for the Georgia Legal Services Program, is anxious about what the governor’s new order might mean for those struggling to put food on the table.

During the pandemic, the federal government increased food aid for some families through SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. As many as 750,000 Georgian SNAP recipients benefitted, with an extra allotment of $100 per month or more for a family of four.

But states must have their own emergency declarations in place to qualify for the extra food assistance. When the emergency declaration ends, those Georgia households may lose the additional support.

“This is going to severely hurt the seniors around the state who depended on this extra benefit for their food needs,” Kimbrell said.

Kyle Waide, CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said if the support ended now that would put more pressure on food banks, as families continue to struggle with job loss and other issues. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.

“I know the governor’s team is aware of and concerned about ensuring every Georgian has enough food; we’re on the same team,” Waide said. “We just need to see what kind of decisions they make over the next few weeks.”

The director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Tom Rawlings, said Friday that his team is working with the federal government to see what type of declaration Georgia needs in order to continue the emergency food aid without a break.

Wide impact

Last year, a staffing crisis arose in hospitals and senior care homes as they overflowed with COVID-19 patients and staff burned out from the unrelenting work. To address that crisis, the governor’s public health emergency orders directed health care licensing boards and the state agency that oversees hospitals and nursing homes to relax or eliminate a variety of requirements.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board announced it would issue emergency practice permits to physicians, physician assistants, advance practice registered nurses and respiratory care professionals previously unlicensed in Georgia — valid until the governor lifts the state of emergency.

The Georgia Board of Nursing extended the expiration dates of temporary permits. The Board of Pharmacy issued temporary licenses to pharmacists from others states and allowed pharmacy technicians to assist pharmacists in dispensing prescriptions in response to the pandemic. The state allowed pharmacists and their interns and technicians to test for COVID-19 and give the vaccine.

The relaxed process ushered more than 2,300 new medical professionals into the state, according to the state licensing board. And hospitals need them, said Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals.

“This has helped us tremendously,” he said.

In addition, the Department of Community Health was directed to suspend the requirement for hospitals wanting to expand capacity or services to obtain a certificate of need. The agency also was directed to waive any additional regulations that could delay or hinder action during the pandemic.

Other temporary measures eased the way for patients as many sheltered in their homes. Doctors were allowed to prescribe certain medications electronically for patients they hadn’t evaluated in person. Nurses were allowed to vaccinate people for COVID-19 while they remain in their cars.

The emergency declarations also allowed children under supervision of the Department of Family and Children Services to stay in the system after they turn age 18, or after 21 if they’re getting extended services, though once the state of emergency is lifted, they will “age out” within 90 days.

A Kemp spokeswoman said his office is working with the Department of Public Health and other agencies to evaluate which rules should continue to be suspended and which should not. But she declined to discuss specifics, such as whether regulations for health care workers will still be relaxed.

Unprecedented powers

Back in March 2020, at a time when the state had little more than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases, Kemp had asked the legislature to give him broad authority to address public health issues.

After debate, they ratified his public health emergency declaration and gave him unprecedented powers. That allowed him to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, commandeer private property, close schools, restrict travel and limit public gatherings, among other powers.

Since then, Kemp has renewed the declaration monthly, sometimes scaling back its scope. Other times, he has issued new orders broadening its scope, such as orders this year expanding the kinds of health care workers permitted to administer vaccinations, until the state of emergency ends.

Some lawmakers say that once the emergency declaration ends, they never again want to see a Georgia governor with such unbridled powers. A number of Republicans have expressed concern about overreach in future crises. Some Democrats are concerned about future leaders using the power to limit responses, as Kemp did last year in trying to block local mask mandates.

What worries others now, though, is fear that Kemp is ending the emergency declaration too soon, what with less than half of Georgians fully vaccinated and the new delta variant of COVID-19 multiplying in the state.

Over the past two weeks, the state had seen more than 3,800 additional COVID-19 cases. A DPH report also shows there are 20 counties where more than 5% of COVID-19 tests are positive in a recent two-week period.

Families are also continuing to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic, as those who lost jobs fell behind on rent or mortgages or had to take on gig work.

If Georgia no longer declares a public health emergency, Hugh Chancy, a pharmacy owner based in Hahira and board chairman of the National Community Pharmacists Association, is uneasy that there may be a sudden need for the extra resources that the governor’s orders have allowed.

“I feel like – we don’t know what is coming,” Chancy said. “Fall could bring more outbreaks, more variants could show up. Also with the flu season we just don’t know.

“But I think being prepared and having that flexibility would definitely be a plus.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

Emergency declarations in other states

While the federal government has said the COVID-19 public health emergency isn’t over, many states moved rapidly this spring to end their emergency declarations as COVID-19 cases and deaths have plunged. Some of those states, however, are slowing unwinding measures put in place to deal with the crisis, to ease the impact.

These are the states where emergency orders have been ended or allowed to expire:

Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin.

Emergency declarations in these states are to end by July 1:

Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and Oregon