Legislature debates pandemic science without state scientist

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Department of Public Health Commissioner, seen here speaking at the Capitol last fall, has been absent during the Georgia Senate's debates over bills dealing with pandemic measures. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Department of Public Health Commissioner, seen here speaking at the Capitol last fall, has been absent during the Georgia Senate's debates over bills dealing with pandemic measures. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Sen. Clint Dixon stood before the Georgia Senate last week, he said, to “fight for the well being of students.” His bill, the Unmask Georgia Students Act, was close to passage. And an ally’s proposal to expand its scope from one year to five years, he said, was backed by none other than the state’s top pandemic scientist, Georgia Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Kathleen Toomey.

“The governor did discuss this with Dr. Toomey, and she is in favor of the bill,” as well as the proposed expansion, Dixon told the senators.

That last part was not true, it turned out; Toomey had not vetted the expansion. But the exchange highlighted a glaring absence in hearings this year about bills on pandemic measures at the state Capitol: testimony from the state’s own public health pandemic experts.

Two years into the pandemic, lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have spent hours and weeks considering legislation on the measures imposed to slow outbreaks. GOP legislators have proposed numerous bills to regulate or lift pandemic measures, and they have made assertions about what the public health science really says. But no state public health experts were brought in to fact check or counter their statements at the hearings.

Taxpayers fund the $197,600 salary of Toomey, as well as that of the state epidemiologist, Dr. Cherie Drenzek, and other state employees responsible for understanding public health measures and monitoring infectious diseases. But while Toomey and her staff have appeared in legislative hearings to request DPH’s share of the state budget and have testified on other health issues, they have left discussion of pandemic response legislation to others.

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That day of the vote in the full Senate on Dixon’s unmasking bill, Decatur Democratic Sen. Elena Parent and others probed Dixon, a Buford Republican, on what Toomey actually said. Dixon later returned to the podium and corrected the record.

“It’s infuriating enough that these folks are advocating measures that do real damage from a scientific and disease perspective,” Parent told the AJC. “And then, without much compunction, issuing statements from our top public health official that are clearly false, is just an abomination.”

Where’s the science?

Some researchers interviewed by the AJC said public health expertise is important especially because everyone is tired of the pandemic and people want to see proof it is ending.

“Non scientists can always grab a few quotes or a few factoids from here or there and craft a narrative, but they’re actually not trained in evaluating the way that (science) changes,” said Dr. Stephen Luby, a professor of infectious diseases at Stanford University. “But you have a group of people who are trained and are responsible for that. It’s reasonable to hear their voices.”

Lawmakers often invite subject experts to speak or answer questions, especially when they are trying to explain a new bill in committee to fellow lawmakers who will vote on it. In addition, anyone may volunteer to speak, if the committee lets them.

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To ask why Toomey or her lieutenants weren’t testifying on the bills, the AJC approached or sent emails to legislators and the offices of Toomey and her boss, Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp’s office said they had spoken with Toomey. Asked whether he had prevented her from speaking, Kemp’s spokeswoman, Katie Byrd, said, “I’ll assure you that’s not the case.”

Toomey’s spokeswoman, Nancy Nydam, said no legislator had asked Toomey or anyone at DPH to testify about the legislation, and it wasn’t her practice to testify unless asked.

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As to the legislators who present such bills?

“I didn’t see the need” for DPH to testify, Dixon said.

The sponsor of another pandemic bill, Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, said he introduced the bill because his constituents wanted it. Pressed on why he didn’t ask for Toomey to testify, Mullis responded to a reporter, “You don’t know that I didn’t.”

Georgia pandemic-related bills under consideration

”Vaccine passport” bill (SB 345)

What it would do: This Senate bill would prohibit any state or local agency or school from requiring a COVID-19 vaccination. The bill would not apply to health care providers, and the bans would last until June 30, 2023. (An earlier version of the bill applied to any vaccines, such as those for measles, tuberculosis and chickenpox, but the bill was amended to apply only to COVID-19.)

Status: The bill passed the Senate 33-19 and will go to the House for consideration.

“Unmask Georgia Students Act” (SB 514)

What it would do: Introduced by Gov. Brian Kemp, this Senate bill would prohibit public school systems from requiring students to wear masks. The bill would still allow school systems to set mask rules, but would allow parents to opt their children out of any of these rules, with no explanation required. If a parent opts their child out, the schools also would be forbidden to require any information about the child’s health such as whether they are infected with COVID. The law would expire in June 2027. (A previous version of the bill would have had the law expire in 2023, but the bill was amended to extend that date to 2027, at the governor’s request.)

Status: The bill passed the Senate 32-19 and will go to the House for consideration.

Lawmakers from all over the state have signed their names to proposals that would enshrine in law what local Georgia leaders can, can’t or must do to cope with or stop a pandemic. Some bills take aim at nursing homes visitation restrictions, some at mask mandates or vaccine requirements. One, House Bill 1394 sponsored by Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock, would even ban private business owners or private professional child caretakers from setting vaccination requirements within their own properties.

Others take the opposite tack, seeking to require more protections, for example requiring businesses to sanitize working areas for their employees’ safety.

“No entity or individual doing business in this state shall require patrons or customers to provide proof of postinfection recovery or any documentation certifying vaccination or to wear a mask or other facial covering to minimize the spread of a contagious or infectious disease in order to gain entry to a business or to receive any goods or services."

- House Bill 1394, proposed by Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock

Most of the bills will never see the light of the day. A select few, however, supported by important state leaders, are getting hearings. They’ve progressed from committees to floor votes and have a chance to become state law.

Dixon’s, Senate Bill 514, is one of those. It was suggested by the governor, approved by the Senate and now will move to the House for a vote. It would ban local school districts from enforcing mask mandates against parents’ will, for five years, unless the governor declares a state of emergency. Another is Senate Bill 345, which would ban “vaccine passports,” meaning no Georgia government agency could demand proof a person is vaccinated before giving the person services, licenses or authorization to do something. It’s sponsored by Mullis, who is the chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee.

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In hearings for those two bills, claims on science flew. “The science is in. Vaccines do not stop transmission of the virus,” said one woman, testifying as a community member. “They say that it does lessen severe illness,” said another. “How do you know that? The goalposts get moved daily.”

Dixon, presenting his unmasking bill, stated that “Georgia and America are moving safely out of the global pandemic.”

One Senator who batted for Dixon’s bill in the committee hearing said his own kids hadn’t worn masks, and they got COVID and got better.

That senator, Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, was a prolific citer of science, reading out data and selected quotes, often from scientists who took a stand against mask mandates.

Video: Sen. Elena Parent, D-Decatur, questions the sponsor of Senate Bill 514, Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford at a Feb. 23, 2022 meeting of the Senate Committee on Education and Youth:

The science on children wearing masks shows that masks work, but local circumstances influence how well mask mandates tamp outbreaks, Dr. David Rubin, professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the AJC in an interview.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released a new Arkansas study showing that transmission of the virus in schools overall was 23% lower in districts with full mask mandates than in districts without mask mandates.

Sen. Dolezal, a businessman and former concert tour manager, cited COVID’s 30 pediatric deaths in Georgia and called the pandemic “a statistical non-event among children.” However, independent scientists also note that more than 2,500 Georgia children have been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to DPH data.

Dolezal didn’t mention the impact of children possibly infecting adults.

That kind of information is useful for lawmakers and observers, said Amber Schmidtke, a researcher who tracks and analyzes Georgia pandemic data. The notion that DPH scientists didn’t testify is “alarming,” given the stakes, she said.

“I mean, they’re all public servants, right?”