Opinion: State needs to do more to fight COVID-19


This is one of two editorials from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editorial Board to appear on the main Opinion page to spotlight important issues about the coronavirus outbreak in the Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, edition.

The state of Georgia should be leading the fight to conquer COVID-19 more forcefully and consistently than it has to date.

It’s intriguing to wonder whether Georgia would have fared better had Gov. Brian Kemp and the rest of state government kept the pandemic front and center throughout the course of this plague?

The results likely could not have been worse, given the more than 21,000 who’ve died of COVID here so far. And Georgia, its people and the economy that supports us all might well have been healthier than we are now.

Strong governmental leadership and communication is essential during a pandemic. And Georgia didn’t rise to that level -- at least not consistently.

Instead, Gov. Kemp prioritized keeping the state’s economy running with as few hiccups as possible. That’s a fine goal, as far as it goes, given this state’s pro-business attitude has created prosperity for many here.

And it’s admittedly hard to do otherwise in a low-tax state with lean public infrastructure, including parts of our stressed health care sector.

Our state’s success demands that we better balance priorities. As an Atlanta-based public health expert wrote on these pages earlier this month, public health and the economy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

They cannot be for this state to achieve all that it should in keeping residents both employed – and alive.

So Georgia needs to dramatically, visibly and consistently step up its coronavirus-fighting efforts.

Doing so will take much more than the short, new public service video Gov. Kemp’s office released last week, urging COVID vaccinations.

To be fair, that’s a welcome step.

But it’s overdue, and it’s not enough.

Not when fewer than half of eligible people here are fully vaccinated.

And the stats worsen when looking at Georgians who’ve had at least one vaccine dose. As of Thursday, only 46.9% of white Georgians are in that number, and 43.8% percent of Black residents.

These percentages, frankly, are pitiful for a state as influential as ours.

And they have to increase, given that most people dying now of COVID-19 in this state’s overrun hospitals are unvaccinated.

Georgia must work to quickly boost its count of vaccinated residents. And employ campaigns strongly endorsing other common-sense public health measures, such as wearing effective face coverings in public and frequent handwashing.

All are imperative to providing Georgia the safest harbor possible to keep both our people and economy healthy.

Gov. Kemp has stressed that these are matters of personal choice. And he’s denounced the likes of mask or vaccine mandates as government overreach.

He must know, though, that the best choices for individuals and communities are informed by sound insights and knowledge. That’s no small order in a day when misinformation and lies abound around COVID-19 and most anything else.

At minimum, the state can do more to help Georgians make the right decisions for themselves and their communities. Ones based on science and not ignorance.

At times, the state’s available coronavirus data has been inconsistent or incomplete. These information gaps are risky for public health.

The state, for example, no longer provides a detailed, daily update of data on COVID cases and deaths in all senior care homes. That’s concerning, given that these facilities were an early vector enabling the virus to hit hard – often with fatal results – among the state’s vulnerable and elderly.

The board of the Georgia Department of Public Health has also met infrequently during the pandemic. It’s met only twice this year. Adopting a more-visible and urgent, warroom-like stance here surely could not hurt, given the death and suffering Georgia’s seeing.

On the whole, much of what Gov. Kemp and the rest of state government can achieve reasonably quickly is to preach loudly and often about the necessity for people to get vaccinated and diligently observe other precautions.

Regular press conferences and PSA’s should be part of this campaign. As should a reprise of the earlier, pre-vaccine travels around the state by Gov. Kemp and DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey promoting mask-wearing.

This time, they can push both vaccination and mask-wearing.

It could not hurt, either, if our vaccinated governor used a mask when closely interacting with people in public. He can set a sound example here, one that could potentially save lives.

Gov. Kemp can also exert his influence on the many people in positions of power that governors appoint to public posts around the state.

He can urge, for example, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents to act more forcefully to help keep campuses safer. The Regents’ weak, delta-era policy of “pretty please do the right thing” around masking and vaccination is actually weaker than the mask mandate that was in place during the previous school year.

As a result, students, faculty, staff – and the communities that surround and support them – are unnecessarily at risk as too many flout the tepid-at-best guidance.

Georgia’s economy, people and public health are inseparably linked.

When workers, for example, fall sick to COVID-19 – or leave jobs because of fear of contracting it, given loosey-goosey measures around public health – Georgia’s economy suffers as it similarly would during a forced shutdown.

It is indeed up to Georgians to do what’s necessary to put the coronavirus behind us. Far too few people have thus far used the most-powerful tool to help assure our freedoms – taking the vaccine.

Improving public health and our economy demands that state leaders do far more to change that.

The Editorial Board.