Opinion: Strengthening Ga.’s COVID-fighting toolkit

09/21/2021 — Forest Park, Georgia — Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination viles are displayed during a Clayton County Public Schools COVID-19 vaccination and testing drive at G.P. Babb Middle School in Forest Park Tuesday, September 21, 2021.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
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09/21/2021 — Forest Park, Georgia — Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination viles are displayed during a Clayton County Public Schools COVID-19 vaccination and testing drive at G.P. Babb Middle School in Forest Park Tuesday, September 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

ISSUE: THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK

The Editorial Board’s opinion

Georgia is approaching a milestone of sorts, with nearly half of the state’s eligible population fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

That is a notable accomplishment, particularly considering the formidable, misguided and sometimes-cynical opposition and confusion around the vaccination.

Yet 50% is a waypoint – not a final destination.

And we still have a long way to go still to get to at least 70% “herd immunity” – an important number that public health experts say will be pivotal in defeating this deadly virus.

Yes, the ravages of the delta variant have eased in recent weeks. Deaths and hospitalizations are declining. We’re all grateful for that.

But we’ve been at this point before, given that the pandemic has run in cycles.

The year-end holidays are near, and that means people are more likely to gather indoors and in close quarters, increasing the risks yet again.

Put simply, vaccinations provide the greatest opportunity to disrupt the rhythm of a virus that has killed about 25,000 Georgians so far.

The preamble of Georgia’s Constitution urges work to “promote the interest and happiness of the citizen and of the family.”

Keeping our people alive and healthy fully aligns with that aspiration.

Getting there will require renewed and smart efforts by all of us, really, and especially by our state government.

It’s encouraging that Georgia seems in a strong place now to do this work.

Despite worries of a year ago that the pandemic would crater the state’s economy and its related tax revenues, that did not happen. The federal government also has pledged about $4.8 billion to Georgia in COVID relief money, and the state has broad flexibility in how to use it.

Enhanced and targeted investments in some areas can help better safeguard Georgians’ health and lives.

Our health care infrastructure was struggling long before COVID pressed it to its far limits. Hospitals have closed in recent years, and parts of the state have too few health care providers.

More specifically, our public health infrastructure has long been under-resourced and understaffed. This, even as state lawmakers added some funding this year to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s budget to help combat COVID-19.

It makes sense to ramp up efforts to quickly increase the number of fully vaccinated Georgians well beyond the current 49%.

Part of that work should focus on collaborating with counties and local governments to improve vaccination programs. Such behind-the-scenes improvements could include providing greater help in areas such as logistics, training and technical support.

This work is important, given that Georgia’s regional health departments are agencies of state government. The state has the obligation – and the money – to make a difference at the local level – and to save lives.

Defeating the coronavirus will require more than getting vaccine doses to the right places – and people.

Many more Georgians need to be convinced to receive the vaccine that public health officials have worked hard to make available. This is important, given anecdotal stories from around the state of DPH-offered vaccine not being enthusiastically embraced, even by some health care providers.

And remember, vaccine clinics and workers have faced threats from those who are outright hostile to widespread immunization.

That’s all worrisome, given that Georgia still needs to increase its vaccination rate by at least 20 percentage points to get us to herd immunity.

Given our status as Hollywood South and the formidable entertainment, communications and advertising infrastructure that got us there, Georgia should be using these resources to create big public service campaigns promoting vaccination.

This message should be everywhere.

It could save lives.

Expanding communications campaigns aimed at the non-vaccinated would build on and magnify advice expressed in a recent public service announcement by Gov. Brian Kemp. Influencing public opinion here will require strong, sustained communication that uses trusted voices and common-sense messaging.

The theme is certainly compelling – help safeguard your own life and lives of those you care about.

Reaching vaccine-skeptical people where they are is especially important, too, given Georgia’s high number of people lacking health insurance. That constrains access by many to trusted medical advisors who could urge vaccination.

This pandemic has taught the importance of adapting messages to specific audiences to lower vaccine resistance, which is markedly higher among certain groups. Georgia’s universities and communications agencies could likely provide useful insights on how to best reach and convert those skeptical of, or opposed to, vaccination.

There’s some evidence that incentives, such as paying people to get vaccinated can also make a difference. Some counties and colleges have done this successfully. The University System of Georgia, for example, is offering $200 health care credits for faculty and staff who get vaccinated.

Expanding these efforts and others around the state warrants consideration, especially considering their cost is a bargain compared to the tab for treating full-blown COVID-19 cases in hospitals.

Gov. Kemp can also use his pulpit more effectively in the COVID-19 fight.

He can make clear, for example, that the state medical board and related entities are free to aggressively go after COVID-19 disinformation, such as the discredited idea that the drug ivermectin is an effective coronavirus treatment.

Georgians can only do the right things he’s urging if accurate, truthful information outweighs dangerous, anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Kemp should also signal to the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents that they can allow campuses to make the right decisions locally about vaccination and mask requirements. The regents, who are appointed by governors, have banned those measures this academic year.

The current lull in COVID-19′s wrath gives Georgia an opening to step up its game in battling the virus.

We should act forcefully and smartly now to improve public health – and save lives – here.

The Editorial Board.