First-time unemployment claims plunge in Georgia

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – Initial unemployment claims in Georgia fell last week to a level not seen in the 21 weeks since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Unemployed Georgians filed 62,335 first-time claims last week, down 11,598 from the week before and less than 50% of the numbers the agency was seeing a month ago.

Georgia’s numbers reflected a nationwide drop in initial unemployment claims to 963,000, the first time that number was below 1 million since mid-March and a decrease of 228,000 from the previous week.

The labor department issued $309 million in regular unemployment benefits and federal funds last week, significantly less than the state had been paying out because the program supporting the $600 weekly federal checks the agency had been distributing expired at the end of July.

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said there’s no need for recipients to call the agency to ask about the federal program because not enough information is available.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order last weekend to partially extend the benefits at the level of $400 per week, with the federal government to cover $300 and the states the other $100. But just how that money would be delivered remains uncertain.

“The president’s executive order gives states various options for implementing the White House plan,” Butler said. “The [labor department] is working with the governor’s office to provide financial resources to continue to bridge the gap for Georgia’s unemployed workforce. … [The agency] will deliver a system to process these weekly supplements as quickly as possible.”

Whether the money will come at all is in doubt. Officials in some states have complained they don’t have the money to provide the state match, while congressional Democrats have questioned whether Trump’s order is constitutional.

Since mid-March, the job sectors accounting for the most initial unemployment claims in Georgia is accommodations and food services with 818,180 claims. The health care and social assistance sector is next with 407,516 claims, followed by retail trade with 373,200.

As of Tuesday, the state’s unemployment trust fund balance had plummeted 85% since mid-March, to $385.4 million. Earlier this week, the state applied for a $1.1 billion federal loan to help replenish the fund.

 More than 125,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.

Kemp drops lawsuit against Atlanta mask, public gathering restrictions

Gov. Brian Kemp is dropping a lawsuit against Atlanta officials and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate following weeks of negotiations toward a settlement amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his office announced Thursday.

But the governor signaled he plans to take new action on business and masking rules following months of loosening restrictions, claiming Atlanta’s mayor decided “she will not agree to a settlement that safeguards the rights of private property owners in Georgia.”

“Given this stalemate in negotiations, we will address this very issue in the next executive order,” Kemp said in a statement. “We will continue to protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

State officials said negotiations with Bottoms stalled as the mayor pushed for enforcing the mask mandate on Atlanta businesses and other private property. Both sides had agreed to let the city keep its mask mandate so long as it was not enforced in residences and penalties were capped for non-compliance.

The current COVID-19 order, which expires Saturday, includes distancing and sanitizing requirements for social gathering spots like bars and restaurants as well as a prohibition on local governments from enforcing their own mask mandates.

Kemp has made clear he will not order any statewide masking requirements, opting instead to encourage voluntary widespread mask use. His office has called local mandates unenforceable.

The lawsuit, filed last month by Kemp and Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, sought to have a Fulton County Superior Court judge declare unlawful a citywide masking requirement imposed by Bottoms earlier in July.

It marked an intense ratcheting up of the dispute between Kemp, who has insisted on keeping mask-wearing voluntary, and several Georgia mayors including Bottoms, who want local control over mandatory measures to help curb the virus’ spread.

The governor’s office was quick to point out the lawsuit mostly took aim at steps Bottoms took in July to resume limits on public gatherings to 10 persons in Atlanta and to reimpose a shelter-at-home order for city residents.

Bottoms stressed she intended for those resumed restrictions, which were in place during April under a statewide order by Kemp, to be voluntary for Atlanta.

Additionally, the lawsuit sought to bar Bottoms from “issuing press releases, or making statements to the press, that she has the authority to impose more or less restrictive measures than are ordered” by the governor.

Bottoms, who tested positive for COVID-19 in July, has cast the governor’s priorities as misplaced in light of the impacts of the virus, which has sickened hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia and killed thousands more.

Perdue, Ossoff spar over pre-existing conditions

ATLANTA – A dispute broke out Thursday between U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff over whether the incumbent supports requiring health insurance plans to cover pre-existing conditions.

Perdue launched a television ad highlighting his commitment to coverage for pre-existing conditions that features his younger sister, Debbie Perdue, a cancer survivor.

“I’ve lived this problem,” she says in the ad. “David’s making a difference for all of us, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know my big brother’s heart.”

Perdue is a cosponsor of the Protect Act, Republican-backed legislation introduced last year by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., supporters say would guarantee health-care coverage for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

But Ossoff’s campaign accused Perdue of siding with other Republicans in efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), legislation then-President Barack Obama steered through a Democratic Congress in 2010 that guarantees coverage for pre-existing conditions.

“Senator Perdue voted at least three times to gut protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, and last month he said he supports [President Donald] Trump’s Supreme Court lawsuit to overturn the ACA, which would completely destroy protections for pre-existing conditions,” said Jake Best, Ossoff’s press secretary.

PolitiFact, a nonprofit project operated by the Florida-based Poynter Institute, criticized the Protect Act for lacking provisions that would ensure health plans covering pre-existing conditions are affordable.

Sports doctor urges caution as football resumes in Georgia amid COVID-19

As sports teams weigh returning to play in Georgia, a sports cardiology expert at Emory University in Atlanta warned Thursday student athletes and schools need to be mindful about the risk of serious heart injury involved in COVID-19 infections.

The resumption of public school and college classes in Georgia this month has prompted growing concern among public health officials and advocates over a potential worsening spread of coronavirus, while many state and local leaders have pressed for classes to be held with safety measures in place.

Top of mind for many health experts and state officials is how to allow football and other sports competitions in the fall, both at the high school and college levels. Schools are grappling with locker-room restrictions and testing requirements to allow play in more controlled settings.

Dr. Jonathan Kim, Emory’s chief of sports cardiology and a member of the American College of Cardiology, noted early studies have shown around 20% of patients hospitalized for coronavirus have developed cardiac injuries, marking a much higher rate than the 1% of heart complications seen in typical hospital patients.

As a result, athletes and others with high-effort exercise regimens could be more susceptible during the pandemic to developing myocarditis, which causes inflammation in the heart muscle and can lead to serious injury or death, Kim said in a briefing Thursday. More data is needed to determine how often athletes have developed myocarditis specifically from COVID-19, Kim stressed.

“What we know is if somebody has active myocarditis and they’re actively training [in] high-exertion physical activities, that can actually make the inflammation worse,” Kim said.

“And when you have that inflammatory process within the heart muscle, if you are engaging in high-end physical activity, that could potentially precipitate dangerous heart rhythms [that] could lead to a cardiac arrest or a catastrophic outcome.”

Student athletes and their families need to individually weigh whether picking up sports again in the fall is safe, while schools and other sports organizations should consider implementing heart-testing procedures like cardiograms, Kim said.

“I do think that lower-level sporting organizations – and really just looking at universities – [they] need to have the cardiac infrastructure in place,” Kim said.

He stopped short, however, of recommending that sports be canceled. That decision should be made by schools and sports leagues factoring in recommendations from public health experts, Kim said.

“I think that if an athlete were to choose not to participate for whatever the reason may be … I would respect that decision,” Kim said. “And I think athletes that choose to pursue must have the trust that their public health concerns are clearly being monitored and addressed.”

Many leagues including those joined by the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology are pressing forward with plans to resume fall play, while others have hit pause on this year’s football season.

The Georgia High School Association is poised for a Sept. 4 start to the high-school football season with the chance that games could be postponed in the coming weeks, depending on virus infection rates. Georgia’s high school football season has already been pushed back by two weeks.

Gov. Brian Kemp urged college football leagues on Wednesday to resume games this fall, calling the sport “a sacred tradition” that should be played “if we can ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff.”

“Based on recent discussions with university leaders and sports officials, I am confident that they are putting the health and well-being of our athletes first,” Kemp said. “I commend the football community for working around the clock to incorporate public health guidance and appropriate protocols as they plan for the future.”

The governor’s stance was echoed by Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who stressed the importance for student athletes to play college football from both an economic standpoint and as the fulfillment of their long-time personal goals.

“Their goal of a lifetime is to play college football,” Ralston said in a radio interview Tuesday. “And if they’re not playing, are they going to be any safer?”

“We have to make the health of the student athletes paramount, but there is an economic piece,” Ralston added. “It would be hard to imagine six or seven Saturdays in Athens this fall with no college football.”

Clayton County bus center project lands federal grant

ATLANTA – The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is awarding a $13 million grant to help build a new bus operations and maintenance center in Clayton County, MARTA officials announced Wednesday.

The $116 million facility will include a MARTA police precinct, training area, operations and administration offices, and enough maintenance capacity to service more than 250 buses and 50 paratransit vehicles.

“We recognized the need for this project several years ago and have been steadily advancing it since,” MARTA General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker said. “We are grateful to the FTA for validating its importance and are already working on real estate acquisition and design concepts.”

The facility will be built in northern Clayton County, a location that will significantly reduce what are known as “deadhead” costs, or the distance a bus travels without customers.

The project will feature energy-efficient design elements including rainwater/rinse water recycling for the bus wash and a solar canopy. Close proximity to electric infrastructure will allow the facility to accommodate a potential future all-electric bus fleet.

Clayton County voters approved a referendum in 2014 making Clayton the first county to join the MARTA system since the transit agency’s inception in the late 1970s. While MARTA has operated buses in Clayton since early 2015, the transit agency also is working to eventually bring rail service into the county as well.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said the bus center will bring 650 jobs to the Forest Park area.

“The overwhelming majority of Clayton County voters who supported MARTA did so with the understanding that jobs and economic development were part of the equation,” he said.

The project is due to be completed in 2026.

COVID-19 vaccine trials ramp up in Atlanta

Coronavirus has sickened hundreds of thousands people and killed thousands more in Georgia. (Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

More people are being administered test doses of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in Atlanta as part of clinical trials that have entered a new expanded phase, Emory University announced Wednesday.

The university, which is leading trials for a candidate vaccine that have shown promising results so far, began giving its first doses this week to a new wave of test subjects poised to reach into the hundreds in the coming weeks.

They will be among roughly 30,000 trial volunteers expected to enroll in vaccine trials at more than 80 sites across the country, the university said in a news release.

“As the death toll from this pandemic continues to rise, it becomes even more urgent that we find a safe and effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” said Dr. Evan Anderson, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine who is a principal investigator for the trial.

“Having this trial take place at Emory gives Atlanta-area residents the opportunity to participate in a study that, if successful, has the potential to help stem the tide of this disease.”

Last month, the university announced early results from clinical trials dating back to March showed the candidate vaccine appears to be producing high levels of virus-blocking antibodies and interacting well with immune systems in 45 adult test subjects who volunteered for the project.

Trial investigators are now testing to see if the candidate vaccine can prevent COVID-19 infections or stave off severe symptoms including death. Test subjects will also be monitored for the next two years to determine whether they catch the virus or develop negative reactions to the candidate vaccine.

Emory researchers are also seeking volunteers for the trials, especially those from populations hit hardest by the coronavirus including Black and Latino communities and elderly persons.

Interested volunteers can apply by filling out forms or emailing the following:

Unlike traditional vaccines that introduce disease-causing organisms, the vaccine being tested at Emory involves using genetic sequencing to create proteins that mimic the novel strain of coronavirus and trigger a response from the patient’s immune system to erect safeguards.

These so-called mRNA vaccines can be cheaper and faster to produce but are less tried-and-true than traditional vaccines, according to the nonprofit PHG Foundation at the University of Cambridge.

The potential coronavirus vaccine, called mRNA-1273, was developed in roughly two months by the Massachusetts-based company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which kicked off clinical trials in Seattle in March.