Our View: Improve Ga.’s public health system

Georgia lawmakers often cite a magazine’s ranking of our state as the nation’s best place to do business.

That’s understandable, as Georgia competes vigorously in an economy where jobs and capital dollars freely move around in search of optimal returns on investment.

Yet there’s more to sustaining a successful business environment than just keeping taxes low and regulations light, we believe.

Successful entities realize the importance of strategic investments where needed. That’s as important to organizational success as running a lean, yet effective operation.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended this calculus, we believe. Businesses, nonprofits and most any entity in between have seen disruptions from COVID-19′s risks, or its actual toll on operations, employees and customers.

The state of Georgia plays an important backstopping role in supporting employers, workers and citizens in their endeavors. And it’s clear that the state so far has struggled in providing adequate, consistent public health services during this pandemic.

There are recent signs that the Legislature is beginning to address the problem, and we hope those efforts yield needed results.

Yes, the coronavirus presented an enormous, complex challenge to government at all levels.

Too often, the Beltway’s efforts to control COVID-19 were hobbled by bluster or missteps.

When a vaccine became available, for example, the feds ignored some experts’ recommendations to distribute it based on rates of infection, or skewing doses toward states having older populations or higher percentages of residents at greater risk of infection.

The Trump administration also left it to the states to work out how doses would be distributed and administered.

That hands-off approach has haunted Georgia, as the shortcomings in our public health apparatus have hindered effective administration of the still-scarce COVID-19 vaccine.

State officials have also pushed responsibility for issuing the vaccine to individual providers, such as hospitals, local health departments and clinics. Many of them were already overwhelmed battling COVID-19.

An undersized communications strategy in Georgia didn’t help either, as phone calls went unanswered or websites crashed under the load of people seeking information on how to get the vaccine. That created harmful confusion and skepticism among the public whose cooperation is necessary to effectively fight this plague.

The state has also withheld useful data, such as specifics on where a more-contagious virus variant has appeared in Georgia. This undue secrecy, paired with information that seems incomplete at times when it is released, can harm public confidence in hard-working health workers’ efforts. More transparency seems vital in the struggle to contain COVID-19.

The subpar results we’ve seen so far point to the need for better investment in Georgia’s public health system. The budget proposed earlier this month by Gov. Bran Kemp called for an increase in public health spending of only 3/10 of 1% -- or less than $1 million.

The continuing scourge of a pandemic that’s killed more than 12,000 Georgians as of last Wednesday demands adequate resources. White House coronavirus task force reports now being made public by the new administration show Georgia doing worse than much of the country in its numbers of new deaths, hospitalizations, cases and positive test results related to COVID-19.

The Georgia House last week approved a budget for the fiscal year through June that does include more money for public health. It adds $18 million for a new disease surveillance system and money for a new chief medical officer, data officer and deputy commissioner at Georgia Department of Public Health.

State lawmakers also note that Georgia has received about $1 billion in extra federal money, for virus-related costs.

The House’s added fiscal efforts are a solid start in the right direction. It’s fair to question, though, whether it’s enough to support all that needs doing, both for this moment and for the future. Lawmakers need to answer that question this year.

The health and safety of Georgians is a shared concern of both government and business. Part of that necessitates having sufficient infrastructure to help safeguard against public health risks. And not all of that might require writing a bigger check. Better utilizing the significant resources in our state, such as the CDC and Georgia’s research universities, could perhaps yield cost-effective benefits for us all.

Costly confusion and public health missteps around administering a treatment that can save lives during a pandemic are not the hallmarks of a state seeking to be a national leader.

Georgia must do a better job of meshing its ambitions with needed investment.

The Editorial Board.