Opinion: Where Georgia blew it on COVID

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Insufficient action, leadership let the virus gain a strong hold here.

“The COVID-19 pandemic removed any doubt that state policies can affect health outcomes.”

Steven Woolf, M.D., in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association).

Dr. Woolf, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, recently issued a study which roundly condemns the current state of American public health and medicine versus other nations.

He also looks at healthcare by state. The red states do not fare well. This fact has been confirmed elsewhere.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

As someone involved in healthcare (public and private) since the ‘70s, I have written so many columns about Georgia’s lame response to COVID that it is hard to determine where to start. But I will give it the “old school try,” starting with the misconception spread by libertarians that we have done a good job on COVID prevention in Georgia. We have not.

First, it would be good to understand how COVID spread across the U.S.

It first hit the U.S. with a vengeance in high population-density “blue areas” like New York and California. So, at the beginning, cases and deaths were much higher in these Democrat-controlled areas. But that changed as the pandemic spread.

And, as opposed to other nations, COVID became a political issue in the U.S.

Democrats thought President Donald Trump was doing a horrible job of controlling the pandemic. Republicans trusted that he was doing well and believed Trump’s claim that rising case numbers were only due to “more testing”. Objective studies now prove that the U.S. did much more poorly than other democracies. A report in Infection Control Today notes that “the data does show that the United States is below average in the world and among the worst in the developed and high-income nations.”

By September of 2021, death rates were much higher in “red counties”. Per one objective study, “the coronavirus death rate among the 20% of Americans living in counties that supported Trump by the highest margins in 2020 was about 170% of the death rate among the 1-in-5 Americans living in counties that supported Biden by the largest margins.”

And that trend continues to this day, including in Georgia. Compare “socialist” Vermont’s cases (12 per 100,000) with Georgia (35 per 100,000). Then look at vaccinations: Georgia- only 57% fully vaccinated (with about 40% of them boosted) versus Vermont at 82% (63% of them boosted). So, more people are getting it here and they are sicker when they do. The question is “why”?

The answer is that in our nation and state populist politics has gotten in the way of modern healthcare practices.

In February and March of 2020, our nation and states were in crisis mode, although CDC guidance was hamstrung both by politics and general incompetence. Many states, particularly the blue ones, began taking strong actions on their own to control the spread.

But it took until April 2 that year for Gov. Brian Kemp to eventually get around to issuing a “shelter in place” executive order, finally joining 42 other states that had already done so. Local Georgia Boards of Health are virtually powerless to act under state law (and they still are).

So, counties and cities must take action when the state does not.

The Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) model ordinance declared a much-broader “public health state of emergency”. However, many local governments were also slow to act to approve it. For example, where I live in Peachtree City, the libertarian-oriented then-Mayor issued a very weak emergency order. Plus, it had numerous major holes in it compared to the GMA model. Among the shortcomings: restaurant in-dining was still permitted, and day care centers were still open, as were hair and nail salons, gyms, fitness centers, pools and so on.

So, the virus spread.

Due to lack of leadership by Kemp, Georgia is still behind the blue states and the nation regarding COVID measures. And he is getting way with it due to the destructive libertarian streak in the GOP and the failure of some of the media to point out our factual shortcomings.

What concerns me is that there are still non-healthcare people spreading misconceptions. There are still people incorrectly pointing to President Biden getting COVID (which has been like a cold for him because he was vaccinated and boosted) and saying that is proof the vaccinations don’t work.

They ignore the fact that without the vaccine, he might have died.

In conclusion, please look at the data before saying measures like masking and vaccinations do not work. Ask healthcare professionals rather than believing talking heads.

Jack Bernard, a former health care executive, was the first director of health planning for Georgia. He’s a former chairman of the Jasper County Commission. Given events of late, he now describes himself politically as a former Republican.