Kemp to boost National Guard support to hospitals struggling with COVID-19 surge

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp is preparing to call up as many as 2,500 additional Georgia National Guard troops to help overwhelmed hospitals combat the coronavirus pandemic, the latest in a string of escalating steps to contain a resurgence of the disease that’s nearing new peaks.

For the first time, the governor on Monday also announced a state subsidy designed to encourage more state employees and retirees to receive their vaccinations, in hopes of boosting inoculation rates that are among the nation’s lowest.

Kemp’s new efforts come after weeks of a more limited approach toward a rise in new cases. They also underscore the growing challenges facing the state as a new wave fueled by the delta variant preys mostly on those who have not yet been vaccinated.

Most of Georgia’s hospitals are so crowded with COVID-19 patients that they have little or no room in their intensive care units. State health officials tracked 170 outbreaks in the past week, the largest total since the start of the pandemic, and most of them are linked to schools.

At the same time, efforts to vaccinate millions of Georgians who have yet to receive their jabs have encountered more difficulties. Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s top health official, said recent vaccination drives have been targeted by threats, forcing officials to shut down one of them.

State health officials detailed several vaccination centers where public health staffers were yelled at, threatened and demeaned. In a rural South Georgia county, residents tracked down health officials on social media and sent them hostile messages. And a North Georgia mobile event was shuttered after staffers faced name-calling and other harassment.

“It comes with the territory to someone in my position,” Toomey said of the threats. “But it shouldn’t be happening to those nurses who are working to try to keep this state safe.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

An urgent fight

Kemp’s executive order allows him to deploy the National Guard troops to health care facilities struggling with a crush of new infections. He said the troops would carry out nonmedical duties, such as helping to direct traffic and clean hospitals.

The goal, Kemp said, is to free overworked health care staffers from other duties so they can focus on caring for patients. He cleared the way for the deployment after consulting with hospital executives who complained of a severe nursing shortage.

In separate measures designed to shore up the state’s health care system, Kemp said he would loosen regulations for shipping compressed oxygen amid supply shortages. And he directed $4.5 million to a state initiative that coordinates hospital bed space and emergency services.

“Those are very significant steps,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease expert who has frequently criticized Kemp’s approach. “He realizes that hospitals are in trouble, and I can tell you, we’re really struggling.”

The governor has long opposed lotteries and other efforts to spur vaccination that he deemed gimmicky and ineffective. He also has firmly rejected vaccine mandates and mask requirements. But his aides have explored other incentives to boost vaccination rates.

Under the new policy, about 325,000 Georgians covered by the State Health Benefit Plan who are fully vaccinated will be eligible for a “well-being incentive” that’s equal to a $150 Visa gift card or $480 in credits for health care expenses. That applies retroactively to those who have already received their jabs, Kemp’s office said.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

‘This is America’

The state’s fight against the pandemic, meanwhile, continues to grow more urgent.

The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and probable infections is nearing its winter peak, and state health officials reported that the number of cases of the virus on Friday amounted to the fourth-worst day of the pandemic.

Hospitals remain swamped with coronavirus patients, and some reported that COVID-19 patients made up more than 40% of all hospitalizations. Roughly 90% of intensive care unit beds have been filled. And the state is short thousands of nurses, particularly critical care nurses trained to care for those with the pandemic.

Over the past few weeks, Kemp has taken more limited steps to halt the spread of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, Kemp announced plans to expand capacity at regional hospitals, hire 1,500 additional state-supported health care staffers and give state employees a day off this Friday, ahead of the Labor Day holiday, to spur more vaccinations. And he previously deployed 105 Georgia National Guard medical staffers to about 20 hospitals throughout the state.

But he’s rejected demands from public health experts and Democratic leaders to take more aggressive steps to halt the spread of the outbreak, such as vaccine requirements and mask mandates. He also recently signed an order that frees local businesses from any government requirement to enact vaccine mandates, indoor capacity limits and mask rules.

Pressed on his policy at Monday’s announcement, Kemp said he believed government officials should focus on encouraging Georgians to voluntarily get vaccinated rather than seeking to force them to do so.

“This is America,” he said by way of explanation, adding that the tension over mandates is causing new societal fissures.

“It’s just causing division. It’s causing people’s blood pressure to go up,” the governor said. “We need to continue to educate and advocate for people to get the vaccine.”

Kemp’s words fell flat with critics who say the resurgence in the pandemic requires more assertive action.

“Name one way he has been proactive and not simply reactive to this latest catastrophic rise in cases,” said state Sen. Michelle Au, a Gwinnett County Democrat and physician.

“Not just lip service. Not actively blocking institutions from exercising public health best practices. But a real, measurable intervention executed with the goal of decreasing our statewide infection rate,” Au said. “If it’s difficult for Georgians to answer this question, then, yes, he’s not doing enough.”