The Jolt: Anti-vaxxers shut down vaccination event, harass state health workers

03/16/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, makes remarks about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out during a presser at the Georgia State Capitol downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, March 16, 2021.(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
03/16/2021 —Atlanta, Georgia — Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner for the Georgia Department of Public Health, makes remarks about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out during a presser at the Georgia State Capitol downtown Atlanta, Tuesday, March 16, 2021.(Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The headlines out of Gov. Brian Kemp’s latest press conference focused on the thousands of Georgia National Guard troops he’s preparing to deploy to help hospitals fight the pandemic.

But it was Dr. Kathleen Toomey who stopped us in our tracks when she revealed that anti-vaxxer protesters had disrupted several vaccination drives -- and forced one to shut down.

We asked aides to Toomey, the state’s top health official, to elaborate. Her office promptly detailed how public health staff “have been harassed, yelled at, threatened and demeaned by some of the very members of the public they were trying to help.”

In one south Georgia county, the anti-vaxxers tracked down public health employees through social media and harangued them with messages of hostility and misinformation about vaccines.

And the event that was canceled was a north Georgia mobile vaccination event, where an organized group of people showed up to harass and name-call public health workers.

“Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” said Nancy Nydam, Toomey’s spokesman.

“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.”

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Gov. Brian Kemp is ramping up the state response for Georgia’s hospitals, nearly all of which are overwhelmed by unvaccinated, and now very ill, COVID-19 patients-- even as he resists calls for statewide mask or vaccine mandates.

At his press conference Monday, Kemp said he’s preparing to deploy as many as 2,500 National Guard troops to help overstretched hospital staff with non-medical duties. Kemp also announced that state employees who are vaccinated against COVID-19 will be eligible for a “well-being incentive,” in the form of a $150 Visa gift card.

Last week, Kemp deployed 100-or-so medical personnel from the National Guard to supplement doctors and nurses in hospitals around the state.

One of your Insiders was on hand for the press conference and later talked to Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory University infectious disease expert who has frequently criticized Kemp’s approach.

“Those are very significant steps,” Del Rio said. “(The governor) realizes that hospitals are in trouble, and I can tell you, we’re really struggling.”

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How bad is the spread of COVID-19 around the state?

The Rome News Tribune reports that hospitalizations in Floyd County are at an all-time high.

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reports Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson will propose a public health emergency at at City Council meeting Tuesday.

Henderson told the paper the primary function of an emergency order will be to allow local boards and commissions to meet virtually, but it will also reserve the right for him to impose a mask mandate in the future of conditions worsen-- a step made more difficult, the paper notes, by a recent executive order from Gov. Brian Kemp allowing businesses to ignore local mask mandates if they want to.

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Some schools around Georgia are struggling with the rapid spread of COVID-19, too.

The Savannah Morning News reports that Beach High School in Savannah announced Friday that it would close its doors and go to all-virtual learning until after Labor Day.

The Academy for Classical Education will also be online-only through September 13, according to the Macon Telegraph.

And the Johnson Journal reported that the entire Johnson County School system went online August 17, with a plan to be back in person by Sept. 13. The lengthy closure came as a result of some alarming numbers-- 32% of the student population and 30% of the staff were in quarantine after possible exposures.

More reporting from Deidre Ledford of the Johnson Journal:

(Superintendent Eddie) Morris explained the governor is leaving the decision up to the school boards and many have already opted to go virtual. He said there are some, however, who have chosen to do nothing and aren't even conducting contact tracing.

“I'm not a doctor but doing nothing just doesn't seem right for our kids, said Morris.

- The Johnson Journal

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The House select committee that’s investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol is widening its net.

We told you earlier that the investigators are seeking records from Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger related to the deadly mob of Donald Trump supporters who ransacked the Capitol.

Now, lawmakers appear to be targeting records from about a dozen lawmakers, including Georgia U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jody Hice. CNN reports the lawmakers were under scrutiny because they actively supported the “Stop the Steal” rally that served as the prelude to the attack.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock continues his statewide travel today with an event in Columbus for families to discuss the expanded child tax credit. In the afternoon, he’ll be in Albany holding a roundtable with small farmers.

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Gov. Brian Kemp suspended indicted Augusta Commissioner Sammie Sias from office Monday.

Kemp signed the executive order suspending Sias after a three-member review panel found the earlier indictment affected “the rights and interests” of the public. The governor can now appoint a temporary replacement for Sias until a criminal case involving the commissioner is resolved.

The Augusta Chronicle has more on the Sias case:

“Sias, 67, was indicted last month in U.S. District Court on two counts: destroying or altering records in a federal investigation and making a false statement about those records.

Each is tied to his role with the Sandridge Community Association, which had a contract to operate and maintain city-owned Jamestown Community Center, according to other court documents.

The charges took place around the same time in August 2019 when FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents raided his house and removed boxes of materials and computers. He is currently free on a $50,000 bond."

- The Augusta Chronicle

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Crime in Atlanta continues to be a focus of political leaders who are not from Atlanta.

On Tuesday, the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee holds another in a series of hearings on “crime in the City of Atlanta.”

Announced witnesses include Jon Keen, the COO of the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, Assistant Police Chief Todd Coyt, Pete Skandalakis of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, and Adrienne Penanke from Moms Demand Action.

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Fourteen candidates have now filed to run for mayor of Atlanta and nearly all of them showed up last week at a mayoral forum Tuesday to talk about it.

Crime was a top topic and all but two candidates on stage said they’d replace current Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant if they’re elected.

City Council President Felicia Moore even took a swipe at former Mayor Kasim Reed, who was also on stage, saying, “We have crimes in our streets, but we don’t need them in the suites of City Hall.”

You can read all about that forum-- and find out what’s coming up next-- in this week’s Race for City Hall roundup.

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Speaking of the race for City Hall, we mentioned in the Jolt last week that Sharon Gay had put $300,000 behind an ad touting her role in redeveloping Perry Homes, which the became the much-improved West Highlands development.

Not so fast, say some longtime residents of the neighborhood. The AJC’s Wilborn Nobles III, and J.D. Capelouto report more:

“I wonder, what leaders did she reach out to in the community?" said Reynolds, who has been involved with the NPU since 1995 and said she doesn't remember seeing Gay at NPU meetings related to West Highlands. “So I beg to differ with her."

Arthur Carson Jr., the longtime pastor at Springfield Missionary Baptist Church up the road from West Highlands, remembers the community meetings over the redevelopment project.

“I never saw Sharon Gay," he said. “She may have done the legal work with somebody, but she didn't work with us."

- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Gay’s campaign said the legal work she did for the Housing Authority as its outside counsel was “indispensable.”

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In 6th Congressional District news:

  • Former state Rep. Meagan Hanson, whose Twitter handle is “fiscally conservative, socially awesome,” will officially kick off her 6th District campaign Tuesday night with an event in Fulton County.
  • Jake Evans, another Republican candidate for 6th District, picked up endorsements from three former Cobb County GOP chairs: Rose Wing, Scott Johnson and Jason Shepherd.

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As always, Jolt readers are some of our favorite tipsters. Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com and greg.bluestein@ajc.com.