How lonely COVID death of lawmaker’s mother inspired new law

Georgia State Rep. Matt Hatchett, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, speaks to press at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 2, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Georgia State Rep. Matt Hatchett, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, speaks to press at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 2, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

Of the many heartbreaks and hellish outcomes that the COVID era delivered, few compare to the experience that state Rep. Matt Hatchett and so many others had when they dropped ailing loved ones off at the doors of their local emergency room, never to see them again.

On the day Hatchett said goodbye to his mother in November of 2020, new COVID restrictions barred visitors from health care facilities, including emergency rooms. Hatchett was already a senior Republican in the General Assembly, so if there were strings to pull to get past the rules, he could have pulled them.

But during the pandemic’s earliest days, it quickly became clear that family members of patients had no legal right to see their loved ones in the hospital. A new law from Hatchett, the “No Patient Left Alone Act,” will change that.

“The last time I had a conversation with my mother on the telephone … I was standing on the helipad of the hospital with my sister,” he said. Hatchett’s mother, like all patients in the early days of COVID, was alone and getting worse. Several days later, she called to ask him to bring her the will and funeral plans she had prepared. Hatchett had to drop the documents off at the front desk.

“She knew,” Hatchett said. Within days, his mother died from COVID with only hospital staff by her side. She was 83.

Although COVID restrictions were loosened for many businesses, they remained in most states for hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities. With so little known about the virus, other than its ability to spread quickly, keeping people apart seemed the best way to keep them safe. But without a family member or caregiver present, patients, some heavily sedated, were left to manage treatment decisions over the phone with their families or completely on their own.

That was the harrowing case for Michael Snipes and his family in Dublin after he was rushed to the same hospital where Hatchett’s mother was treated. Like every other patient at the time, Snipes went in alone.

“They wouldn’t even let me in the door,” said Penny Snipes, Michael’s wife. “So I sat in the parking lot from seven o’clock that morning until about noon that day and he finally called me and told me that they were admitting him.”

After nearly a week on his own in the hospital, Michael texted Penny with harrowing news — the medical staff wanted to put him on a ventilator, a treatment for the most serious COVID cases.

“I’m thinking, no, no, you can’t do that,” Penny recalled. Michael was having trouble remembering names and asked to change hospitals. He was too weak to speak on the phone, so how could Penny decide without seeing him first?

She returned to the hospital parking lot and began calling anyone she knew who might have a connection with the hospital. Eventually, a staff member let her in. “You need somebody in there, you just do,” Penny said.

Once inside, Penny asked for other treatments, but Michael eventually went on a ventilator for the next 70 days. Penny stayed there, sending clothes out to be laundered by friends.

On a day he took a turn for the worse, Penny was asked to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order. “I said I’m not ready to do that. He’s 54 and we have so much to do.” Had she not been in Michael’s room watching him for weeks, she said she’s not sure whether she might have made a different decision.

“I would probably have signed it, because they were telling me he’s brain damaged and this is gonna be awful,” she said. “But I was there to see him. I just couldn’t give up on him.”

Michael does not remember going on a ventilator or much about the many months he was in the hospital, and later a rehabilitation facility. But he remembers being told he needed to go on a ventilator and thinking, “I’m not ready to go yet.”

Michael has now recovered, with some lingering effects, and is back at work. And the Snipes had only praise for the staff at the hospital where Michael was treated in Dublin. But Penny, who is a lawyer, said overwhelmed staff would have benefited from family being present with more patients.

And, she added, no one should have had to fight so hard to be with the people they loved and were responsible for.

“You have a fiduciary duty to take better care of this person than you do yourself,” she said. “How can you make decisions when you don’t know what’s going on?”

The bill, which Gov. Brian Kemp signed Monday, allows patients to designate an essential caregiver, who has the right to be with them 24 hours per day, with some exceptions specified by hospitals. The Georgia Hospital Association supports the bill.

As the chairman of the powerful state House Appropriations Committee, Hatchett is used to getting lobbied by interest groups and CEOs. But no high-paid lobbyist came calling for this bill, just his constituents who had been through the heartbreak like Michael and Penny Snipes.

Hatchett said that of all the bills he’s passed in the General Assembly, this one is the most personal and will affect the most people directly.

“This is something for everybody,” Hatchett said. “It is technical, but it’s giving everybody that right to say we’re not going to have to go through what just happened again.”