Opinion: State’s inaction has worsened COVID-19 suffering

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I trust hardworking Georgians to know what’s best for themselves, their families and their employees.” Gov. Brian Kemp, defending his COVID-19 policies on August 18.

Most of our state’s residents do not realize that Georgia has had one of the higher COVID-19 death rates in the nation. A month ago, only Idaho, West Virginia, South Carolina and Alabama were worse. A month later, there are 9 states that are worse. All are red.

Could the underlying cause of our high death rate be Georgia’s tribal politics? Read this piece and decide for yourself.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

For comparison purposes, let’s use progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ home state of Vermont. Since January 2020, Vermont has had 60 deaths per 100,000 people versus Georgia’s 265 per 100,000. Since the pandemic began, Georgia had 442% more deaths per capita versus Vermont. We have had 28,267 Georgians die from COVID-19 (1.6 million cases). If our death rate was the same as Vermont, only 6,395 Georgians would have died.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont took an aggressive approach to COVID containment. Kemp’s philosophy was the opposite of Scott’s.

Kemp told cities wanting to require masking that they were prohibited from doing so (July 2020), negating laws passed by 15 local governments (including Atlanta). After filing suit against Atlanta, he reversed course a month later after bad publicity, but limited fines to $50.

In July 2020, Scott issued an executive order requiring wearing masks in public as of Aug. 1, 2020. The state permitted businesses to refuse to serve people without masks. These requirements were eased, but not removed, until June 2021.

Early on, Georgia had minimal “stay at home” orders, while Vermont was much stricter, continuing until May 15, 2020. Georgia also chose to reopen much more rapidly than Vermont, and not to continue restrictions initially imposed in March/April 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.

In April 2020, Kemp permitted non-essential businesses like barber shops, bowling allies, massage parlors, restaurants and movies to reopen. Vermont did not permit openings of certain retail businesses until May. And when they did, businesses had strict occupancy limits (25%). Some, like restaurants, were completely closed until June.

Daycare centers remained open in Georgia, spreading the virus. Vermont initially closed them entirely, only reopening them in June.

Overall vaccination rates are the best indicator of where a state currently stands. And those rates are partially determined by how well a state’s leadership has sold its population on the need to be vaccinated.

In Vermont, 71% of residents are fully vaccinated -- as opposed to barely 50% in Georgia. For herd immunity to prevail, we need at least 70% in every state to be vaccinated.

And our current positivity rate (COVID infection rate) is 10% to 15% versus under 3% in Vermont. Our situation is not getting any better relative to one of the most progressive states, or even national data (5% positivity).

Further, Kemp prohibited state agencies from mandating that only vaccinated people could access facilities/services. He also prohibited state agencies, including the Georgia Department of Public Health which administers shots and treats people, from requiring their employees to be vaccinated (May 2021).

On the other hand, in Vermont all state employees must be vaccinated or be tested repeatedly each week.

Why is our COVID-19 rate so high relative to Vermont? Is it because Gov. Kemp has been putting his libertarian conservative ideology and state politics before the lives of Georgians?

And what is our Governor doing about Georgia’s vaccination problem? Other than sitting back, refusing to take any responsibility? Oh, and having “trust” that Georgians will “know what’s best.”

If Kemp’s naïve assumptions were true, that everyone would just do what’s right on their own with no governmental intervention, our vaccination rate would double overnight. But higher vaccination rates will not happen without proper marketing and implementation by Georgia’s state government. And we have yet to see that occur.

Do you believe that the “buck stops” with the state’s highest elected official? Applying Vermont’s per capita figures, doesn’t that mean Kemp is indirectly responsible for over 20,000 unnecessary pandemic deaths of Georgians?

Jack Bernard was the first director of health planning for Georgia. A Republican and former health care executive, he’s a former chairman of the Jasper County Commission.