Ossoff calls on feds to make COVID-19 drug affordable

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff called on the federal government Thursday to make remdesivir, the only drug authorized for emergency use in treating COVID-19, available to patients at no out-of-pocket cost.

In a three-page policy paper released in advance of a virtual town hall appearance Thursday evening, Ossoff argued that remdesivir, developed by Gilead Sciences Inc. with at least $70 million in federal assistance, is priced out of reach of many Americans suffering from coronavirus.

“No one should die or go bankrupt in the wealthiest country in the world because they cannot afford health care,” Ossoff said. “It is vital during this pandemic that every American can get coronavirus treatment without financial hardship.”

Clinical trials have found that a course of up to 10 days of treatment with remdesivir shortened the recovery time for some adults hospitalized with COVID-19.

Gilead plans to charge patients in the U.S. with private insurance up to $3,120 for the full course of treatment. While that is 25% more than patients in other developed countries will pay, company officials say the price is reasonable.

“At the level we have priced remdesivir and with government programs in place, along with additional Gilead assistance as needed, we believe all patients will have access,” Gilead CEO Daniel O’Day wrote in an open letter late last month.

Health-care advocacy groups and financial analysts have given mixed reviews to the U.S. price. While some accuse Gilead of price gouging, others note the price represents a savings compared to what it would cost patients to spend extra days in a hospital intensive care unit they could have avoided by taking remdesivir.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced late last month the purchase of a stockpile of 500,000 treatment courses of remdesivir, the supply Gilead plans to manufacture in July, August and September. The federal government is managing the distribution of the drug to hospitals, which then resell it to patients.

Ossoff also is asking the Trump administration to require Gilead and other pharmaceutical companies to set “reasonable and affordable prices” for COVID-19 treatments. And he called on Congress to include the necessary funding for remdesivir in the next coronavirus relief bill.

Ossoff won the Democratic nomination last month to oppose incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in November.

The virtual town hall will be conducted alongside Savannah Alderman Kurtis Purtee.

Atlanta imposes mask mandate, possibly defies governor

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

A mandatory masking order is in effect in the city of Atlanta, requiring everyone inside Georgia’s capital city to wear masks in public and in businesses open to the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order, which took effect late Wednesday, pits Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms against Gov. Brian Kemp, who opposes issuing a statewide mask mandate amid a recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Georgia.

The governor has not signaled whether he may take legal steps to overturn Atlanta’s mask order, given his own executive orders on COVID-19 require local governments to adopt the state’s health and safety rules, which do not so far include any guidelines on mandatory masking.

The Atlanta order also limits public gatherings to 10 people or fewer in Atlanta, potentially impacting the ability for large protests against racial injustice and police brutality to continue as they have over the past several weeks.

It provides exceptions for those with medical conditions who may not be able to wear masks, as well as when people are eating, smoking, swimming in a pool or riding in a vehicle.

“We will continue to take active measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19 infections in Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Public health experts overwhelmingly agree that wearing a face covering helps slow the spread of this sometimes deadly virus.”

With the masking order in place, Atlanta joins a handful of other Georgia cities including Savannah and Athens that have recently issued requirements for facial coverings in public.

National and local health experts strongly agree the widespread use of masks will be essential to curbing the virus’ spread without a vaccine or cure.

Kemp has also urged voluntary mask wearing in Georgia via a statewide awareness tour and by launching a marketing campaign for reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

“To keep our friends and neighbors safe from COVID-19, we have to do our part,” the governor said Thursday on Twitter. “Mask up, Georgia!”

Kemp has, however, stopped short of requiring Georgians to wear masks, noting on several occasions that people in the state should not need a mask mandate “to do the right thing.”

Many local elected leaders have called on the governor to go a step further with masking rules – or at least allow city and county officials to set their own measures.

“We should not be sending the message to local governments that they don’t have the right or the space to take those steps on their own,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville.

Other influential Georgia leaders have steered clear of the mask debate. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, noted he ordered state House lawmakers to wear masks during the legislative session last month but has no such say over local affairs.

“Whether local municipalities are able to compel mask wearing under the governor’s executive order isn’t my decision to make,” Ralston said Thursday. “Frankly, all that matters now is keeping people healthy and getting our economy growing again.”

The governor’s office has not responded this week when asked if Kemp is considering legal options to overrule the order.

On Twitter, Kemp’s communications director, Candice Broce, leveled criticism at aspects of the Atlanta order, highlighting that “there’s no exception for exercise, but there’s an exception for smoking.”

More than 100,000 people in Georgia have tested positive for COVID-19 since the highly contagious respiratory virus swept the state starting in March. Around 3,000 Georgians have died.

Positive cases have edged up in Georgia in recent weeks.

In a troubling trend, hospital admissions began climbing again this month in Albany, which was one of the state’s worst COVID-19 hotspots earlier this year.

The Southwest Georgia city’s Phoebe Putney Health System noted Thursday that 37 patients have been admitted in the last eight days, approaching close to the total of 47 patients seen there throughout June.

“It is clear transmission of the virus is picking up throughout Georgia and much of the country,” said Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s chief executive officer. “We are all anxious for our lives to return to normal, but to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, that normal must include wearing masks in public and limiting close contact with others.”

Georgia sets weekly record for unemployment payouts

Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler

ATLANTA – While initial unemployment claims in Georgia continued to decline last week, the state paid out an all-time record of more than $857 million in state and federal jobless benefits.

That’s almost three times the benefits payments the state agency issued during all of last year.

 “We are paying more Georgians more benefits than we ever have before,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said Thursday. “No one would have imagined in the same year we experienced our lowest monthly number of claims since 1975 that we would pay almost three years’ worth of benefits in one week.”

Initial unemployment claims filed during a short holiday week totaled 105,160, down 12,325 from the previous week. That marked the 10th week in a row initial jobless claims in Georgia have gone down.

 Since the week of March 21, when Georgia businesses began closing to comply with a shelter-in-place order put in place to discourage the spread of coronavirus, the accommodation and food services job sector has accounted for the most initial unemployment claims, with 732,709 claims filed.

The health care and social assistance sector is next with 348,660 jobless claims, followed closely by retail trade with 330,152 claims.

 “Our staff continues to focus daily on unpaid claims, resolving as many of these issues as possible,” Butler said. “As not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits, it is our responsibility to administer state and federal unemployment programs to the best of our ability making sure we only pay eligible claimants.

“Sometimes, these claims are challenging and require research and attention greatly increasing the time it takes to find resolution.”

More than 116,000 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.

University system advisory group on renaming buildings, colleges begins work

Albany State University President Marion Ross Fedrick

ATLANTA – Deciding whether to rename buildings or academic colleges on the 26 University System of Georgia campuses will be a complicated process fraught with emotion, system Chancellor Steve Wrigley warned Thursday.

“You will face some complex choices,” Wrigley told the five members of an advisory group formed last month to review those names and recommend any changes. “Be deliberate and thoughtful. Those are not words we hear a lot today. We want you to be persuaded only by the facts.”

The advisory group, which held its first meeting Thursday, was created amid a backdrop of protests across the country over centuries of racial injustice in America that have been marked by the removal of statues of Confederate leaders and public calls for renaming buildings honoring historic figures connected with the South’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and violence.

“These conversations need to happen … where these names come from, whether they’re appropriate and whether they need to change,” said Marion Ross Fedrick, president of Albany State University and the group’s chairman. “It is critical that we purposefully look at the naming of our buildings, colleges and schools.”

The group’s work promises to be time-consuming. More than 3,000 buildings dot the university system’s campuses, although not all have names.

Fedrick said she already has received more than 1,000 pages of information on the histories of those buildings. She said she would like the group to meet at least twice a month through December and decide at that time whether the process needs to continue into next year.

The group may develop an onsite platform to allow for public feedback.

Fedrick urged group members to give equal weight to the various sources of that public input.

“A lot of this will be emotional and personal,” she said. “What we don’t want to do is listen to one and not another.”

Besides Fedrick, the advisory group includes:

  • Michael Patrick, marketing and strategic growth at  Chick-fil-A.
  • Herbert Phipps, a retired former Georgia Court of Appeals judge.
  • Neal J. Quirk, a lawyer and executive vice chairman of the University of Georgia Foundation.
  • Sally Wallace, dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Ossoff launches first TV ad of general election race

Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – U.S. Senate Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff released his first TV ad of the general election campaign Thursday, highlighting his background as an investigative journalist.

Ossoff, who won last month’s Democratic primary in a crowded field, heads a 28-year-old investigative media company that exposes corruption and organized crime worldwide.

“We’ve exposed sexual slavery by ISIS, crooked judges, child trafficking and bribery,” Ossoff says in a 30-second ad entitled “We Investigate.”

“Corruption is why politicians let health insurance companies rip off our families, and polluters poison our air and water. Fighting corruption is my job, and it’s what I’ll do as your senator.”

Ossoff’s first general-election ad comes a day after incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., released his first two TV ads. Perdue, who is seeking a second six-year term, won the Republican nomination unopposed.

The Democrat’s ad goes on to state he is refusing to accept campaign contributions from corporate political action committees. He has accused Perdue of being beholden to corporate interests by accepting corporate PAC checks.

Ossoff won nearly 53% of the vote in the June primary. By gaining the support of more than half of Democratic voters, he avoided a runoff in August and now can take aim at the November election.

Atlanta mayor to order mask mandate, joining other Georgia cities

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signaled Wednesday she will place Georgia’s capital city under a mandatory mask order amid the COVID-19 pandemic, joining Athens and Savannah on a list of Georgia cities where masking is now required.

The Atlanta order comes in the face of continued opposition by Gov. Brian Kemp to issuing a statewide mandatory masking order, even as officials and health experts urge people to wear masks in public.

The new mask requirement in Atlanta also comes after Bottoms announced she and several of her family members had tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, though she has not experienced any symptoms.

Details about the order were not immediately available Wednesday. Bottoms said she would issue an order in an MSNBC interview Wednesday morning.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 104,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 2,922 Georgians.

City officials in Savannah, Athens, and the suburban Atlanta city of East Point have also issued mask-wearing requirements in recent days, as health experts warn positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have edged up in Georgia following the Memorial Day holiday in late May.

The decision by Bottoms puts Atlanta at odds with Kemp, whose own statewide executive orders on COVID-19 allow him to override any local mandates such as for masking.

Kemp’s office did not immediately respond when asked whether he may seek to overrule an Atlanta order.

Speaking on MSNBC, Bottoms said she had asked the governor to let Atlanta impose its own mask mandate but that “he refused.” She labeled state officials’ approach to loosening business and distancing restrictions in recent months as “very irresponsible.”

“The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our cities, specifically black and brown communities with higher death rates,” Bottoms said. “And we will never be able to reopen our schools and our economy if we don’t take some responsibility for what we can do as leaders to make sure that people aren’t exposed to this virus.”

The governor has held off on imposing a statewide mask requirement despite mounting pressure from many local officials and health experts to do so.

In remarks Tuesday to municipal and county government associations, Kemp called on local leaders to raise awareness over the importance of wearing masks and washing hands, rather than imposing any mandates.

“We don’t need a mandate to have Georgians do the right thing,” Kemp said. “But we do need to build strong, public support.”

The governor has opted instead to tour the state in a bid to urge mask wearing and launched a marketing campaign this week encouraging reopened businesses to adopt safe distancing, cleaning and masking practices.

Bottoms announced Monday she had tested positive for COVID-19, marking the most high-profile public official in Georgia to contract the virus. She said she did not know where she might have been exposed but criticized the slow eight-day turnaround time for her test results.

“The fact that we can’t quickly get results back so that other people are not unintentionally exposed is the reason we are continuing in this spiral with COVID-19,” Bottoms said.

She noted Atlanta city hall has been closed since March but that she had recently been in close proximity to the city’s police chief, fire chief and other staff.

The mayor’s announcement also comes as she grapples not only with the city’s response to coronavirus but also a spate of violence centered around a burned-down Wendy’s that has been a focal point for recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

The fatal shooting Saturday night of an eight-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, near the Wendy’s restaurant sparked swift condemnation from Bottoms and other officials including the governor.

Kemp has placed Georgia under a state of emergency through Monday (July 13) in response to Turner’s death and vandalism at the state Department of Public Safety headquarters in Atlanta.

Atlanta authorities said Turner was shot and killed when a group of armed people opened fire on the car in which she was riding across the street from the Wendy’s, located south of downtown.

The Wendy’s was burned down amid protests shortly after the killing of Rayshard Brooks, 27, during an altercation with Atlanta police outside the restaurant in mid-June. Since then, the site has been frequented by armed persons who at times have barricaded the property, according to police.