The resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic has put Gov. Brian Kemp on the defensive, as public health experts and Democrats plead with him to take more aggressive action to curb the outbreak while key Republicans urge him to block any government restrictions.
As the numbers of cases and hospitalizations soar, Kemp has joined other Republican governors by railing against mask requirements and vaccine mandates. But he’s upset fellow conservatives by refusing to stop local governments, private businesses and school administrators from instituting their own restrictions.
At the same time, Kemp is facing criticism from public health experts and state Democratic leaders for failing to take aggressive new steps to contain the outbreak. His recent public remarks have focused as much on combating crime as they have fighting the virus.
The fallout has had consequences, both to public health and in the realm of politics. Georgia’s facing a surge in coronavirus cases at heights that may soon rival January. More than half the state’s residents are unvaccinated. And nearly 90% of the state’s intensive care beds are now filled as hospitalization rates soar.
Health care executives are facing a particular bind, torn over whether to call for their own vaccine mandates in the absence of a state order.
“Georgia is in crisis, but the governor acts like all is well,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the top aide to Stacey Abrams, who is expected to challenge Kemp next year.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
“No mask mandates. No Medicaid expansion to shore up hospitals and cover the uninsured in a pandemic. No deep community outreach or incentives to get vaccinated,” Groh-Wargo said. “He’s just throwing up his hands like he has no power to save lives.”
The governor says he is looking at a variety of options, including incentives for those who have not yet received their jabs, though he hasn’t outlined plans to do so yet. He’s also ruled out lotteries to encourage vaccinations and blamed President Joe Biden’s administration for mistrust over mandates.
“My message to folks is do your due diligence,” Kemp said this past week in an appearance on Fox News, adding that he firmly opposes a “top-down federal policy” to direct Georgia’s response.
“We’re taking the same tack we did last year. We’re trusting our local school boards,” he said of the wave of mask requirements adopted by local administrators, which now cover more than 40% of the state’s public school students.
‘Not going to slow down’
Like other governors, Kemp shut down large sectors of Georgia’s economy last year as the pandemic grew worse and urged residents to stay home. Weeks later, he became one of the first governors to aggressively reopen the economy, drawing barbs from both sides of the aisle.
In Kemp’s view, his decision was vindicated by Georgia’s economic rebound and low jobless rate. But the fourth wave of the disease threatens to derail that progress, as the highly infectious delta variant causes a tsunami of cases that have swamped the medical system.
His strategy now can be described as a “stay the course” approach. He still holds routine calls with hospital executives and school officials, and he recently held a discussion with local officials. His administration points to his support for more than $500 million in funding to help hire 1,300 health care workers since October.
But he’s so far outlined no plans for new steps to contain the disease, such as the across-the-state publicity tours he launched during previous spikes in the pandemic to encourage mask use and vaccines. And he’s repeatedly rejected new mandates, lockdowns or measures other states have embraced to curb the disease.
That’s a contrast with governors in mostly Democratic-controlled states that have taken new steps and revived measures adopted in the earliest days of the pandemic.
Some have required public employees to get vaccinated or get regular tests and wear masks, a policy that Kemp flatly rejected when he signed an executive order banning “vaccine passports.” Others have adopted statewide indoor mask mandates, required health care workers to be vaccinated, added new restrictions for long-term care facilities or limited the size of public gatherings.
At the very least, Kemp’s critics say, he should launch a new public campaign to urge vaccination, like one he embarked upon before last year’s college football season, and consider reopening makeshift coronavirus hospitals to relieve the strains on the health care system.
“This science is not going to slow down,” said state Rep. Rebecca Mitchell, a Democrat and epidemiologist. “The new data starting to come out for delta is going to change things even more.”
The governor has staunchly opposed mask mandates and waged a brief and unsuccessful legal battle with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last year when she ordered residents and visitors to the city to don face coverings.
But he’s refused to ban mask mandates this year, even as Atlanta and other major cities revive the requirements, saying he’s reluctant to interfere with “local control,” particularly the administrators who have dealt with coronavirus for parts of three school years.
“One thing people can count on in Georgia is I’m going to stay consistent,” Kemp said. “I’ve constantly told people to follow guidance and guidelines. They know what that is now. They don’t need the government explaining that to them.”
That strategy breaks from some other conservative Republican governors. A Texas ban on mask mandates is under legal assault, with two recent court rulings clearing the way for local officials to temporarily require people to wear face coverings.
Florida officials have threatened to withhold salaries of school leaders who enact mask mandates, while lawmakers in Arkansas and Oklahoma are trying to block vaccine mandates by employers.
Kemp faces similar pressure in Georgia, too. State Sen. Burt Jones, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, wants the governor to block schools from requiring masks. And other Republican legislators are pushing Kemp to ban private businesses from requiring vaccines or other restrictions.
State Sen. Jason Anavitarte sponsored legislation that would prevent the state from shutting down businesses if they’re following safety precautions during a mass disaster such as a pandemic. He said there’s a hue and cry from conservatives to prevent another shutdown that could debilitate struggling businesses.
“One way we can help them is to give these small businesses the assurance they have a pathway to remain open during a state of emergency,” the Paulding County Republican said. “We need to ensure that the overreach never happens in Georgia.”
‘Virus against humanity’
The latest crisis is only expected to grow worse, health care analysts and hospital administrators say.
The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals across Georgia has exploded in August and has now surpassed last summer’s peak. Some doctors worry that COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated Georgians are increasing so quickly that hospitals could soon be more crowded than they were in January — the biggest surge so far.
Hospitals along the Georgia coast exceeded their previous peaks in recent days, while large hospitals in Atlanta and elsewhere resorted frequently to diversion status to limit ambulance traffic coming to their overloaded facilities.
Without any government actions on masking or vaccines, some providers have taken steps to try to quell a surge that is taking place largely among Georgians who have not been vaccinated.
In Atlanta, the Emory, Piedmont and Wellstar health systems are mandating that their employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. This week, three prominent long-term care providers — PruittHealth, A.G. Rhodes and CHSGa — came together to announce a vaccine requirement for all of their workers, too.
”As a health care provider, we have to do everything we can to fight COVID,” said Neil Pruitt Jr., chairman and CEO of Georgia-based PruittHealth, one of the largest long-term care operators in the Southeast.
Pruitt said about 40% of its nursing home workers have been vaccinated — roughly the same proportion as the state — and that simply wasn’t enough. It became clear in listening sessions, he said, that the vaccine had become a political issue. But he also had to act in the best interest of his company’s residents even though the decision could make serious staffing challenges worse.
”We feel like we have the right as an employer to create one of the safest environments out there,” Pruitt said.
Ronnie Rollins can empathize. He runs CHSGa, which has about 8,000 statewide employees in a vast operation that includes nursing homes, home health, hospice and other services. He wasn’t looking for a government mandate for vaccinations. But he also said low vaccination rates are clearly fueling a new surge in infections.
”This is a virus-against-humanity issue,” he said.