Facing intense pressure to combat a surge in new coronavirus cases, Gov. Brian Kemp announced steps Monday to expand capacity at regional hospitals, increase health care staffing and shutter state offices on Sept. 3 to encourage public employees to get vaccinated.
The Republican said he will create an impromptu state holiday on the Friday before Labor Day weekend in hopes of spurring state staffers to schedule their shots during their time off. Those who are already vaccinated, he said, can treat it as a “thank-you” holiday to spend with friends and family.
He also said the state will spend $125 million financing 1,500 additional hospital staffers, bringing the total number of state-supported health care workers to 2,800. And officials are readying 450 beds in nine regional hospitals for coronavirus patients.
The governor outlined the plans as Georgia hospitals struggle with a new wave of infections fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, which has led to a spike in hospitalizations among Georgians who have refused to get vaccinated.
Like other Republican leaders, though, Kemp said he would not require state employees to get their jabs or call for face covering requirements in schools, public spaces or indoors.
“I want to reiterate that Georgia will remain open for business. We will not shut businesses down. We will not prevent families from earning a paycheck,” he said, adding: “The most important thing for Georgians to do at this point is, if you’re not vaccinated, please talk to your doctor or a medical professional about the benefits of vaccination.”
Kemp said the additional health care funding would pay for 170 staffers who will be assigned to rural hospitals. He’s not yet ready to reactivate a makeshift facility at the Georgia World Congress Center as he did during earlier surges in the pandemic.
Public health experts, hospital administrators and state Democrats have demanded that Kemp take more steps to curb the outbreak. The first-term governor has maintained a “stay-the-course” approach, saying he’s confident the surge in cases that has inundated the medical system will level off.
State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Gwinnett County Democrat and microbiologist, urged Kemp to enact a statewide mask mandate, boost tracing efforts and seek other incentives to encourage more vaccinations.
“I have never seen someone double down on wrong as much as Gov. Kemp,” she said. “Increased funding for hospital workers is definitely welcomed, and I’m sure state employees will enjoy a day off. But his unwillingness to put politics aside and actually make tough decisions that may be politically unpopular is going to cost lives.”
Kemp still holds routine calls with hospital executives and school officials, and he recently held a discussion with local officials. On Monday, he pointed to his administration’s support for more than $500 million in funding to help hire 1,300 health care workers since October.
But until Monday, he didn’t outline new steps to contain the disease, such as the across-the-state publicity tours he launched last year to encourage mask use and vaccines. And he’s repeatedly rejected new mandates, lockdowns or measures other states have embraced to curb the disease.
At the same time, he’s upset fellow conservatives by refusing to stop local governments, private businesses and school administrators from instituting their own restrictions. A growing number of cities, including Atlanta and Savannah, have revived mask orders, along with public school districts covering more than 45% of the state’s students.
The state’s struggle with the pandemic has steadily worsened. Roughly 4,300 patients suffering from the disease were reported in Georgia hospitals over the weekend, and nearly 90% of the state’s intensive care unit beds were in use.
The broad majority of those cases involves Georgians who have refused to get vaccinated, underscoring an ongoing challenge for state health officials: Only about 41% of Georgia’s population is vaccinated, well below the national average of 51%.
With the reopening of schools, new outbreaks have erupted. School districts in at least nine Georgia counties have temporarily shifted to online learning, and two others have delayed the start of the school year. Nearly 4,000 cases of the virus have been reported in 14 school districts across metro Atlanta.
Without state incentives, local governments have explored other ways to increase the number of jabs going into arms. DeKalb County offered $100 prepaid debit cards to anyone who got a shot over the weekend, vaccinating more than 1,100 people.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s top health official, said the state also plans to expand testing initiatives and pursue more ways to bring pop-up vaccine clinics to workplaces and campuses.
Meanwhile, Republican legislators have seized on opposition to vaccine mandates and mask requirements. At a town hall Monday morning in Newnan, Republican U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson faced criticism from constituents who urged lawmakers to ban private companies from requiring the jabs.
“The bottom line: I think the vaccine is safe. I base that off of what I’ve seen,” said Ferguson, a dentist from West Point. “Ultimately, it’s up to you to have the conversation with your doctor, get the right information and get vaccinated. But we can’t have the economy shut down again.”
Staff writers Tyler Estep, Ariel Hart and Susan Hogan contributed to this article.