All adult Georgians will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines this Thursday

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

The long winter of COVID-19 looks to be coming to an end in Georgia.

All Georgians age 16 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting this Thursday, March 25, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Tuesday.

The long-awaited expansion comes as Georgia is set to receive another boost in the weekly shipment of vaccines, largely due to the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine that increased the state’s allotment this week to 450,000 doses, according to the governor.

“This is our ticket back to normal,” Kemp said. “We’re getting closer to that point every single day.”

Speaking at a news conference, Kemp said Georgia expects to gain another bump in vaccine doses next week from the federal government – though he was not sure yet how much more the state will receive.

So far, Georgia has distributed roughly 3.2 million vaccine doses to groups that have gradually become eligible since mid-December, including all residents ages 55 and older, health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders, judges, courtroom staff and people with physical, mental or behavioral health conditions.

The vaccine rollout has seen nearly 75% of the state’s residents ages 65 and older receive at least their first dose, setting Georgia on a path to having its most vulnerable population inoculated in the coming weeks.

Still, state officials continue to see “vaccine hesitancy” in rural areas, particularly parts of Georgia south of the Columbus-Macon-Augusta line.

In a show of confidence, Kemp said he is scheduled to get his first vaccine dose on Friday and has been talking with former University of Georgia football star Champ Bailey to spread awareness in Georgia about the efficacy – and importance – of receiving the vaccine.

“I just want to encourage everybody to get the vaccine,” Kemp said. “We’re seeing this across the country, but especially in the South, we’re seeing vaccine hesitancy.”

“There should not be hesitancy. This is a medical miracle.”

Amid hesitancy in rural Georgia, Kemp said Tuesday officials this week sent 70% of the state’s weekly vaccine doses to sites in metro Atlanta, where demand has been consistently higher.

The governor said many providers in the Atlanta area currently have appointments available for the shots, including a mass site downtown run by the federal government at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“If you’re in the metro where demand continues to be high, we’ve got great options,” Kemp said.

Georgians can pre-register for a vaccine appointment at even if they do not yet qualify under the governor’s eligibility criteria. They will be notified once they qualify and scheduled for an appointment.

State officials have opened nine mass vaccination sites in Atlanta, Macon, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, Waycross and Bartow, Washington and Habersham counties.

Nearly 845,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon, with more than 203,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 16,187 Georgians.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout creeps ahead in Georgia amid limited supplies

Gov. Brian Kemp (right) gives an update on Georgia’s vaccine rollout with state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey (left) on Jan. 26, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia has not yet reached the halfway point in giving first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the roughly 2 million people currently eligible more than a month after the state’s distribution program began, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday.

The number of shots administered to Georgia health-care workers, nursing home residents and staff, first responders and people ages 65 and older has gone up in recent weeks after a halting mid-December start, Kemp said at a news conference in the state Capitol.

Kemp’s office announced Tuesday night the Biden administration will start allocating Georgia an additional roughly 25,000 vaccine doses per week. That will increase Georgia’s current weekly allotment to 145,900 doses, Kemp’s office said – an amount still lagging far behind the millions of doses needed to halt the virus’ spread.

“Although we still expect demand to far exceed supply for the foreseeable future, this is no doubt welcome news, and we will work around the clock to get these vaccines distributed and safely administered as quickly as possible,” Kemp said in a statement Tuesday night.

Kemp had earlier on Tuesday said his office did not know when the federal government would allocate more vaccine doses, saying he had not yet spoken directly with the new Biden administration and that he did not expect Georgia’s weekly allotment “to change certainly for the next few weeks.”

As of Monday, nearly 714,000 vaccines had been administered to the initial round of Georgians eligible to receive them, said state Public Health Director Dr. Kathleen Toomey. Health departments across the state have enough vaccines to schedule second doses for people who have received their first, she said.

More than 99% of the state’s nursing homes have also been supplied vaccines through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, Kemp said. He has set a goal to vaccinate all of Georgia’s nursing home residents and staff by the end of this month.

But limited shipments from the federal government have kept state officials so far from expanding which Georgians can be eligible for the vaccine to school teachers and other at-risk groups such as those with developmental disabilities, Toomey said.

“All this is dependent on the availability of vaccine,” Toomey said at Tuesday’s news conference.

Vaccine providers have also met resistance from some nursing homes and hospitals where people have refused to take the vaccine. Kemp said some nursing homes saw up to 70% of staff refuse the vaccine early on during the rollout, while as many as 50% of employees in some hospitals refused it.

“I think they should get it,” Kemp said. “That was one of the reasons that we expanded the criteria … to people 65 and older.”

The governor added officials are creating a statewide vaccine scheduling and tracking tool as local health departments field a flood of calls for the few available appointments, but more work is needed before that tool can go online.

“Doing that prematurely could be disastrous,” Kemp said.

Meanwhile, the number of hospitalizations and positive case rates from COVID-19 has fallen in recent days amid a rough winter spike that began in November, Kemp said. He urged Georgians to continue wearing masks, washing hands and keeping their distance from others despite the downward trend.

“We cannot take the improving numbers we’re seeing for granted,” Kemp said.

More than 722,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Georgia as of Monday afternoon, with nearly 150,000 more reported positive antigen tests indicating likely positive results. The virus has killed 11,854 Georgians.

This story was updated to note Kemp’s office announced late Tuesday the Biden administration will start allocating Georgia an additional roughly 25,000 vaccine doses per week.

New human trafficking bills ahead in Georgia legislative session

Gov. Brian Kemp (right) and First Lady Marty Kemp (left) led a roundtable meeting on human trafficking in Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

State lawmakers plan to bring new legislation aimed at helping victims of human trafficking in Georgia recover from abuse and protect their identities, Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp announced Monday.

One bill would change state law to give privacy protections for human-trafficking survivors who want to legally change their names, Marty Kemp said at a news conference. Another bill would let survivors sue their traffickers for damages in civil court.

A third bill would require anyone seeking to obtain or renew a commercial driver’s license in Georgia to complete a human-trafficking awareness course, the first lady said.

“We are dedicated to giving survivors opportunities for promising futures and holding their captors accountable,” said Marty Kemp, who heads up the human trafficking-focused GRACE Commission.

The slate of bills on deck in the current legislative session would follow legislation passed last year that toughened penalties on foster parents engaging in improper sexual behavior with children in their care and on commercial drivers with human-trafficking criminal convictions.

Legislation was also passed last year allowing victims to clear their court records of any offenses stemming from activities while they were being trafficked.

The governor has made fighting human trafficking a priority since taking office in 2019. On top of tasking his wife to lead the GRACE Commission, he charged the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with cracking down harder on traffickers through a multi-agency task force created last year.

State officials also created a new hotline in September for Georgians to alert law enforcement officers of sexual or labor exploitation and to receive help for victims. Thousands of state government employees have also taken a trafficking-awareness course during the past year on how to spot abuse.

“There is always more work to be done,” Kemp said Monday. “We will not let up. We’re still fighting.”

The number for the state’s human-trafficking hotline is 1-866-ENDHTGA.

Kemp doubles down on refusal to call election-focused special session

Gov. Brian Kemp doubled down on his refusal to call an election-focused special session and pledged to address Georgia’s election issues in the upcoming legislative session during a conference with state lawmakers on Monday.

Kemp is facing intense criticism from President Donald Trump and his allies for not intervening in Georgia’s presidential election, which certified results show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden by 11,779 votes.

Some Republican lawmakers are pressuring Kemp to call a special session before next month to pick Electoral College members who will vote for Trump instead of Biden, despite the certified results from the Nov. 3 general election.

Speaking before state lawmakers Monday in Athens, Kemp said state law prevents him from calling a session to choose different Electoral College members. It only lets lawmakers pick the presidential electors if the election could not be held on its scheduled date, he said.

Instead, Kemp said he wants lawmakers to focus on crafting legislation aimed at bolstering the state’s voter ID laws in the regular legislative session that starts in mid-January.

“I am confident that when the legislature reconvenes in January, we will have ample time to address any issues that have come to the attention of the members of the General Assembly, my office [and] the public over the last few weeks,” Kemp said.

The three-day Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators is held every two years at the University of Georgia in Athens and convenes General Assembly members to talk policy and procedure ahead of next month’s regular session.

In a luncheon speech, the governor highlighted successful bills his administration backed in the most recent legislative session on foster care, criminal gangs, human trafficking, health care and hate crimes.

That legislation came as Georgia confronted the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered businesses and forced students to take virtual classes from home in March.

“Each of these are great achievements and worthy of celebrating,” Kemp said. “But make no mistake: This is no time to rest on our laurels or take our eye off the ball.”

Kemp said his administration’s approach to seeking balance between public health and economic interests “has shown promising signs of success,” despite an increase in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks that health experts expect to worsen during the winter holidays.

The governor said he is working with nursing homes and hospitals to help boost short-handed staff as part of $250 million in emergency funds the state plans to spend on staff augmentation.

The biennial conference, which has drawn many prominent Georgia lawmakers and elected officials including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, also featured panels Monday on rural issues, gambling opportunities and tax breaks.

This story previously stated President-elect Biden won Georgia by 11,784 votes. The correct margin is 11,779 votes.

Kemp taps new chief of staff in former Isakson aide

Trey Kilpatrick will serve as Gov. Brian Kemp’s new chief of staff starting on Oct. 15, 2020. (Photo from the Office of Gov. Brian Kemp)

Gov. Brian Kemp has tapped a former aide to retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson to serve as his next chief of staff following the departure last month of his longtime top deputy.

Trey Kilpatrick, who served several roles for Isakson from 2009 to 2019 including deputy chief of staff, will start work as the governor’s chief of staff on Oct. 15.

An experienced campaigner with Isakson, Kilpatrick joins the Kemp administration at a pivotal time in which Georgia continues battling the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor gears up for his reelection bid in 2022.

“With his wealth of experience from both federal and state government, Trey is uniquely qualified to lead my administration,” Kemp said in a statement Wednesday. “Together, we will continue to put hardworking Georgians first – protecting lives and livelihoods as we battle COVID-19, reforming adoption and foster care, fighting human trafficking and prioritizing economic prosperity in every region of our state.”

Kilpatrick will not be the only tie between the Kemp administration and Isakson’s old office. Kemp appointed Isakson’s replacement in current U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler following the longtime senator’s retirement due to health concerns. Loeffler’s current chief of staff, Joan Carr, was also Isakson’s former chief of staff.

Kilpatrick served a short stint as vice president of governmental affairs for Georgia State University prior to joining the Kemp administration.

“I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with a great Georgian like Senator Isakson for 10 years, and now have the opportunity to work with a principled leader like Governor Kemp in his administration,” Kilpatrick said.

Kemp’s last permanent chief of staff was Tim Fleming, a political strategist who first worked with Kemp on his winning bid for a Georgia Senate seat in 2002, then managed his campaign for secretary of state in 2010. He served several roles in that office following Kemp’s win.

In 2018, Fleming managed Kemp’s underdog campaign for governor that saw the long-shot candidate prevail in the Republican primary and defeat Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams by a narrow margin. Fleming then signed on as chief of staff at the start of Kemp’s new administration.

Fleming was replaced on an interim basis by Caylee Noggle, who was the state’s chief management officer and previously held top posts in the Georgia Student Finance Commission and the state Office of Planning and Budget.

Noggle was the first woman to serve as a governor’s chief of staff in Georgia.

Kemp extends COVID-19 restrictions in Georgia through Oct. 15

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

Gov. Brian Kemp has extended social distancing and sanitization restrictions for businesses, gatherings and long-term elderly care facilities in Georgia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news release sent late Wednesday, the governor’s office announced Kemp signed an order extending the restrictions through Oct. 15. The order keeps restrictions that have been in place for months largely the same.

Kemp’s public health emergency, which allows him to continue issuing executive orders, has also extended until Nov. 9. Georgia’s emergency status has been in effect since mid-March when the virus began spreading in the state.

The latest order keeps in place a ban on gatherings larger than 50 people in Georgia and continues to make wearing a mask voluntary at the statewide level, not mandatory.

Cities and counties have been allowed to impose their own mask mandates since August so long as their local requirements do not apply for businesses and residences.

Residents of long-term care facilities and Georgians with chronic health conditions have been under stay-at-home orders since March, though Kemp has moved in recent weeks to start relaxing some restrictions on visitors at elderly care facilities depending on how well a facility has fought the virus.

Restaurants, bars and other popular gathering spots remain under occupancy limitations and cleanliness requirements that have been in place for several months.

Bars have been limited to no more than 50 customers or 35% of occupancy, whichever is greater. Restaurants must keep at least six feet of space between seated groups.

Kemp’s latest order does allow workers at restaurants and bars who have been symptom-free for 24 hours to return to work after showing symptoms or testing positive for the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, roughly 318,000 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 7,021 Georgians.