Opinion: Managing COVID-19′s still-real risks of harm

01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — A COVID-19 testing site is located on the second floor at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston said members of Georgia’s legislature will be tested twice a week for COVID-19 during the 2021 session. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
01/07/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — A COVID-19 testing site is located on the second floor at the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, Thursday, January 7, 2021. Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston said members of Georgia’s legislature will be tested twice a week for COVID-19 during the 2021 session. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

“We need more body bags.”

The last year can seem like a blur – but there are those moments that stand out.

Last March, we suspended the General Assembly session because a new virus was spreading. Like many legislators and staff, I had to quarantine for two weeks after exposure to an infected individual.

So, along with our House leadership team, I hosted conference calls with groups of House members based on geographic region to get a picture of what was going on around the state.

On one such conference call, I will never forget the chilling words of a state representative from South Georgia, “We need more body bags.”

If I needed any proof that COVID-19 was an unprecedented disaster that was it.

David Ralston wants a hate crimes bill ‘with no delay and no amendments’
David Ralston wants a hate crimes bill ‘with no delay and no amendments’

This has been and continues to be a dynamic crisis that requires thoughtful leadership.

I’m proud that our House of Representatives took COVID-19 seriously from the beginning. Prior to suspending session last year, we tried to limit the number of people who could be exposed by suspending our page program and not allowing guests in the House Chamber.

This virus is not something to take lightly. The deaths of some 14,000 Georgians are a tragic reminder of that fact. COVID-19 has touched all of our lives in very personal and painful ways.

As recently as last month, a single House member refused the required COVID-19 testing that every legislator (myself included) and staffer participates in twice a week. Prior to that occasion, I had never had to have a fellow member removed from the House Chamber to protect other members, and I hope I never have to again.

But if there is anything I have lost patience for in this year-long onslaught of COVID-19, it is foolishness like that. Now is not the time for publicity stunts. Now is the time to lead.

That’s why our House of Representatives continues to combat this pandemic on multiple fronts.

In our amended FY2021 state budget adopted two weeks ago, we allocated more resources for staff and equipment for the Georgia Department of Public Health to fight COVID-19.

We added more than half a billion dollars to our state’s public schools, and we provided a $1,000 bonus for teachers, state troopers, DFCS case workers other state employees who have served Georgians throughout this pandemic.

We also recognize that our economy must continue to function despite COVID-19. That’s why we protected small businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to the spread of the virus. We’re also working on incentives to create jobs manufacturing medical equipment and supplies so we can be prepared to continue fighting this and future pandemics.

It is also time that we work diligently to get every Georgia student back into a classroom.

The Georgia Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/ AJC
The Georgia Gold Dome. TY TAGAMI/ AJC

Despite the attention that COVID-19 has demanded, we continue to enact measures in the General Assembly to move our state forward.

Last year, we passed a hate crimes statute to protect Georgians from hate-motivated violence like the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery. We also expanded healthcare coverage for new mothers to combat Georgia’s maternal mortality crisis.

This year, we’ll look to improve access to mental health services in our state. We’ll also attempt to reform our citizen’s arrest law and provide paid parental leave to state employees.

Our work to keep Georgia the best state for business – and the best place to raise a family – hasn’t stopped because of COVID-19.

It has, however, presented unique challenges we have met head-on. Working with Gov. Kemp, Lt. Gov. Duncan and my colleagues in the House and Senate, I am confident we will emerge from this pandemic a stronger and better state and people.

So let’s stay focused on what matters.

Protect yourself and those around you. Wash your hands. Wear a mask. Watch your distance from others. And please, seriously consider getting vaccinated when you’re eligible.

And remember to thank those doctors, nurses and frontline workers who report for duty every day. They are Georgia’s heroes.

We will get to the other side of this pandemic. What we do – and whose leadership we follow – will determine how quickly.

Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is the 73rd speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives.

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