Facing rising coronavirus cases, Kemp wants to stay the course

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to the media before health care workers received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside the Chatham County Health Department on Dec. 15, 2020 in Savannah, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to the media before health care workers received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside the Chatham County Health Department on Dec. 15, 2020 in Savannah, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

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‘They know how to deal with this,’ governor says

Facing a rising rate of coronavirus cases and a sputtering vaccination effort, Gov. Brian Kemp is under increasing pressure to get more jabs into Georgians’ arms and find new ways to contain a pandemic that’s ramping up as students prepare to return to the classroom.

Firmly opposed to mask mandates and restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, Kemp has instead encouraged Georgians to get vaccinated and take precautions. He indicated he’s not stepping up outreach or planning new initiatives to spur vaccinations and said Thursday that he believes the government shouldn’t compel people to get inoculated.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. I mean, that is not the government’s role,” he said Thursday. “Our role is to educate people and to tell them the truth.”

But his limited approach is being tested once more by vexing new pandemic challenges as a growing number of local officials are taking matters into their own hands.

The highly contagious delta variant is pushing the number of weekly coronavirus cases in Georgia to heights not seen since March. The state’s vaccination rate is among the lowest in the nation, fueled by disinformation and apathy. And public health experts and local leaders are pushing for more assertive action.

“I’ve been working with our public health officials and we agreed that in order to try to slow this trend down, the mask mandate was the least invasive and destructive way to do it,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, who ordered a partial mask requirement this week. “The minority is suffering because the majority won’t act.”

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In Savannah, the mayor this past week ordered a partial mask requirement to stem the spread of the coronavirus as COVID-19 cases in the state hit their highest level since March. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In Savannah, the mayor this past week ordered a partial mask requirement to stem the spread of the coronavirus as COVID-19 cases in the state hit their highest level since March.  (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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In Savannah, the mayor this past week ordered a partial mask requirement to stem the spread of the coronavirus as COVID-19 cases in the state hit their highest level since March. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Kemp said Thursday that he had no new approach to boost vaccination rates but will instead continue to use his public appearances and social media to encourage Georgians to get inoculated, consult their physicians and take precautions as they see fit. The first-term Republican also rejected other enticements to raise the state’s vaccination rates, such as the financial incentives that some other states are offering to woo hesitant people to get the shots.

“Lotteries haven’t worked in other states. Government mandates haven’t worked in other states. People at this point in the pandemic, they know how to deal with this,” he said. “They know what they need to do. Some of them have been reluctant to do that.”

‘Slow the spread’

Frustrated by the lack of action from the state, some mayors and school officials are enacting a range of restrictions on the local level. Administrators in charge of nearly one-third of Georgia’s public school students are requiring masks. DeKalb County officials are handing out gift cards to newly vaccinated residents.

And this week, the mayors of two of Georgia’s largest cities ordered residents to wear face coverings again. Savannah became the first city in Georgia to reimpose at least some mask requirements, while Atlanta’s broader order covered all indoor public spaces, including private businesses.

“Public health experts overwhelmingly agree, and data has proved, that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this deadly virus,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said.

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a mask mandate this week that would cover all indoor public spaces, including private businesses. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree, and data has proved, that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this deadly virus,” Bottoms said. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a mask mandate this week that would cover all indoor public spaces, including private businesses. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree, and data has proved, that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this deadly virus,” Bottoms said. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a mask mandate this week that would cover all indoor public spaces, including private businesses. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree, and data has proved, that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this deadly virus,” Bottoms said. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Kemp criticized the move, saying the mandates would turn law enforcement officials into “mask police.”

“The city of Atlanta can’t keep up with violent crime right now,” he said. “I know these officers damn well don’t have time to be writing tickets for not being masked up. I mean, that is ridiculous, in my opinion. Georgians don’t need that.”

The debate comes amid startling new coronavirus figures. Georgia’s seven-day rolling average of probable and confirmed coronavirus cases is at its highest point since March 5, and the pace of vaccination has slowed to a crawl, leaving Georgia’s fully vaccinated population hovering around 40% statewide. Some rural hospital regions are struggling with a surge in cases.

The governor has limited authority to impose far-reaching rules after he ended the public health state of emergency that gave him broad powers to enact — or block — statewide restrictions. But public health experts and others say he could be using his pulpit in more proactive ways.

Dr. Michael Eriksen, founding dean of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said Kemp can be a particularly powerful voice in rural counties that have staggeringly low rates such as Charlton County, where fewer than 15% of the residents are fully vaccinated.

He said the governor could promote the vaccines as a way to “ensure personal freedom and economic recovery” to those who refuse to accept them.

“Getting vaccinated is the ultimate example of personal responsibility,” Eriksen said.

‘The hard calls’

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat and physician, has emerged as one of her party’s leading voices on the pandemic response. She suggested a series of steps to ramp up vaccinations.

First, she’d expand mobile vaccination spots to more workplaces, office lobbies, schools and factory floors. Second, she’d encourage more ways to offer incentives to those who get the shots, particularly among teens and college students. And third, she’d require state employees to get vaccinated or submit to COVID-19 tests twice a week.

“You can’t just talk about personal liberties and not take into account personal responsibility. Everyone has to pitch in,” Au said. “You shouldn’t run for office if you don’t want to make the hard calls and take the unpopular stances.”

Kemp continues to reject the latter idea, joining other Republican governors in framing vaccination requirements as an assault on personal liberties. He’s signed an executive order that forbids state government agencies from requiring vaccines and another that opposes school mask mandates.

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State Sen. Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat and physician, has been a leading voice in her party on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has recommended expanding mobile vaccination spots to more workplaces, office lobbies, schools and factory floors to boost Georgia's vaccination rate, one of the lowest in the country. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

State Sen. Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat and physician, has been a leading voice in her party on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has recommended expanding mobile vaccination spots to more workplaces, office lobbies, schools and factory floors to boost Georgia's vaccination rate, one of the lowest in the country. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
State Sen. Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat and physician, has been a leading voice in her party on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has recommended expanding mobile vaccination spots to more workplaces, office lobbies, schools and factory floors to boost Georgia's vaccination rate, one of the lowest in the country. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

He’s also facing pressure from his conservative flank ahead of an election year to resist pandemic restrictions. State Sen. Clint Dixon, a Buford Republican, epitomized the pushback with a staunch objection of the Gwinnett school district’s decision to require masks in classrooms.

“They’re not following the facts. They’re not following the science,” Dixon said. “They’re listening to a radical agenda from Washington trying to create hysteria and play politics with our children.”

Kemp said Thursday that the most potent step the government can take is full federal approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are now under emergency authorization by regulators. He blamed a broader mistrust in government, particularly the Biden administration, for Georgia’s mounting pandemic challenges.

“You don’t have to believe me or anybody in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Talk to your doctor, go get vaccinated and we’ll keep plowing through this. That’s the bottom line.”


Excerpts of Kemp’s remarks:

On what he is doing to increase vaccination rates:

“The message I’d give to Georgians is 95% of the population of COVID patients in our hospitals have not been vaccinated. The vaccines are working. But at this point, with mixed messages coming out of the Biden administration, people just don’t have much trust in the government.

“You don’t have to believe me or anybody in Washington, D.C. Talk to your doctor, go get vaccinated and we’ll keep plowing through this. That’s the bottom line.”

On whether he’d pursue incentives, such as lotteries:

“Lotteries haven’t worked in other states. Government mandates haven’t worked in other states. People at this point in the pandemic, they know how to deal with this. They know what they need to do. Some of them have been reluctant to do that. I’d love to see the Biden administration put an Operation Warp Speed on moving away from the emergency use authorization (for the vaccine).”

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Savannah and Atlanta both reimposed mask requirements in the past week to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but Gov. Brian Kemp says he doesn't think such measures work. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Savannah and Atlanta both reimposed mask requirements in the past week to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but Gov. Brian Kemp says he doesn't think such measures work. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

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Savannah and Atlanta both reimposed mask requirements in the past week to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but Gov. Brian Kemp says he doesn't think such measures work. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

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Georgia Tech nurse Melanie Thomas administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot to student Grayson Prince earlier this month at the school's Exhibition Hall. Georgia's rate for full vaccination currently hovers around 40%. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com

Georgia Tech nurse Melanie Thomas administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot to student Grayson Prince earlier this month at the school's Exhibition Hall. Georgia's rate for full vaccination currently hovers around 40%. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech nurse Melanie Thomas administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot to student Grayson Prince earlier this month at the school's Exhibition Hall. Georgia's rate for full vaccination currently hovers around 40%. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com

Credit: Eric Stirgus / Eric.Stirgus@ajc.com