The pandemic has reached crisis levels in Georgia. We are in the worst crisis of this COVID pandemic, with our hospitals overflowing and ICUs turning patients away, medical staffs overwhelmed, and our children getting terribly sick.
For the first time we are seeing infections and illness peak among young people in elementary, middle, and high schools. Parents are frightened and confused about whether they should even send their kids to school.
Businesses that thought it was safe to reopen don’t know what to do now. Employers are being forced to shut down because they can’t find enough workers.
We have plenty of vaccines and masks, but we have many residents who don’t want to use them. We have folks anxious to get their third shots, and many who don’t even want their first one.
We are stuck in a partisan standoff; people have dug in their heels and care more about sticking to their partisan positions than saving lives. There are reports that demonstrators are going to immunization clinics organized by the Georgia Department of Public Health and heckling and threatening state employees attempting to immunize people. So much so that these Georgia nurses are packing up and leaving without giving vaccinations.
And it is not just these demonstrators that are so dug in. Politicians and legislators at local and state levels, in the state house and on local school boards seem to feel that they need to demonstrate their unwavering adherence to their positions. At the same time, some vaccine advocates are calling parents who question vaccines and mask mandates “crazy” and “murderers.”
Those not deeply engaged in either side are tired. Actually, everyone is tired and worn out from having fought this war against one enemy -- the alpha variant, and now having to face yet another, more-contagious and virulent delta variant.
Therefore, this is a really good chance for the Governor to rise above partisan positions, bring opposing sides together and set the conditions for them to produce an optimal plan for preventing more illness and deaths.
We need to bring the best minds in this state together to stop this virus, to improve the state of business, to make our state a safe place to live and work.
We need to work together to save our kids and their mental health. We need a clear goal and a strategy for reaching that goal.
We can start by acknowledging that stopping the spread of the coronavirus and strengthening the economy are not mutually exclusive. We can agree that health and freedom are both important goals and not either/or choices.
This will involve the governor asking both sides to step outside of their previous positions, rise above blaming others and put together a plan that is based on science, acknowledges respect for everyone’s rights and civil liberties, acknowledges that in this crisis we must take responsibility for protecting our communities’ health, liberties and ability to earn a living.
Public health is inherently political because it is concerned with the health and well-being of everyone in the state. And not just the well-being of those who live in rich neighborhoods -- or poor neighborhoods. Not just those who have thriving businesses and not just those who are on the verge of shutting down. Not just Republicans and not just Democrats, but the whole state and everyone who lives in it.
And the only institution that theoretically has everyone as constituents is the government.
But political is very different from partisan.
A crisis is no time to stay stuck. Gov. Brian Kemp now has a chance to step up to put together a truly post-partisan plan for getting Georgia out of this crisis. The governor has extraordinary resources in this state from which he can select strong sector leaders.
This taskforce or coalition would be made up of groups and individuals who have the strength to summon public opinion for their ideas. We have a very strong and articulate business sector and very wise school system leaders from large urban systems and small rural areas. We have politicians on both sides of the aisle who are defenders of our state and constitutional rights. And we have medical and public health expertise in our hospital systems, CDC and many excellent schools of medicine and public health. This task force would ideally have representation from the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the faith community, a C-suite executive from a major Georgia corporation, the Georgia PTA, the Georgia Nurses Association, a few hospital executives from across the state and others.
For openers, they can identify a shared, overriding goal and start to map out a strategy for getting us there. They can engage in real collaboration. Each person on the panel can start by saying what they admire in another’s position and identifying one aspect of their own position that they sometimes question.
We have some reasons to be optimistic. We think that Georgians share the goal of keeping our children alive. Our Georgia Department of Public Health has a track record of assuring the successful immunization of infants and schoolchildren with more than 20 different vaccines. And the vast majority of Georgians want to preserve our constitutional and state freedoms.
The governor can ask his multi-sector task force of experts to come up with a clear and concise plan that works toward all these goals at the same time. If they succeed, credit will go to Gov. Kemp. He can get greater recognition for true leadership in a crisis.
Goodness knows, we really need it now.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D., M.P.P. is president emeritus of The Task Force for Global Health, former U.S. assistant surgeon general and an author of Real Collaboration. He is also Julie Rosenberg’s father.
Julie Rosenberg, M.P.H., is a doctoral student in public health leadership, an assistant director at Ariadne Labs and deputy director of the Global Health Delivery Project at Harvard.