COVID-19 vaccine poised for mid-December rollout in Georgia, governor says

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

Georgia is gearing up to distribute the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to health-care workers and the state’s elderly residents in the coming weeks once federal officials approve the vaccines for emergency use.

Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday he expects health-care workers and nursing home residents in the state to start receiving vaccines in the second or third week of December, noting several state agencies have been preparing to move quickly on distribution as soon as the initial vaccine shipments arrive.

“Obviously, that timeline could change, but that is what we’re shooting for right now,” Kemp said at a meeting with local nursing home administrators.

“I’m confident that when the vaccine is authorized … that we will be ready to distribute that,” he added.

Kemp also relaxed certain red-tape state rules Monday to allow nurses and pharmacists to administer the new COVID-19 vaccines and to let people receive the vaccines in their vehicles via drive-thru services.

Two vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna showed unexpectedly good results in recent clinical trials and are now poised for emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The federal government is leaving it to governors and other state officials to hash out plans for distributing COVID-19 vaccine doses in their respective states, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention giving guidance on which populations to prioritize like health-care workers, first responders, elderly persons and those with chronic health conditions.

Between 30 million and 40 million vaccine doses could be available by January with emergency federal approval, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset in March.

The general public should expect to have access to COVID-19 vaccines sometime between May and July of 2021 after officials have prioritized more vulnerable populations, he said.

“The most important thing is we need to allocate the vaccine in such a way that we rapidly bring down mortality and hospitalizations from this disease,” Del Rio said at a news conference Monday.

Amid high hopes for ending the pandemic, Georgia officials still need to figure out how to hand out millions of doses across the state while keeping the vaccine stored at low temperatures that may require purchasing new refrigeration equipment, Del Rio said.

Hospitals and long-term elderly care facilities also face a daunting few months ahead as outbreaks of the virus flare up in Georgia and short-handed staff who have battled the pandemic since March feel fatigue.

Several local nursing homes noted at Monday’s meeting with Kemp that while the state has helped prop up staffing levels with federal relief money, many facilities continue struggling to both fend off viral transmissions and provide everyday care for their elderly residents after losing employees early during the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be dealing with it for another six months,” said Neil Pruitt, chairman and CEO of PruittHealth.

Positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have risen in Georgia since October as officials and public-health experts worry a larger spike could come amid the winter holiday season. As of Monday, more than 422,000 Georgians had tested positive for the virus and 8,778 had died.

Kemp urged people Monday to keep up safe distancing, masking and hand-washing habits despite the temptation to let their guard down with vaccines on the horizon.

“We’ve got to remain vigilant [and] keep our foot on the gas,” Kemp said.

Port of Savannah sets monthly record for containerized cargo

Port of Savannah

ATLANTA – The Port of Savannah set a record for containerized cargo volume in October, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) reported Monday.

The nation’s busiest export hub handled an all-time high 494,095 twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs) in October, an increase of 8.3% over October of last year. The October total broke the previous monthly record of 441,600 TEUs set in August.

The tremendous growth Savannah is experiencing is the main reason the authority is expanding the port’s capacity, said Will McKnight, chairman of the GPA’s Board of Directors.

“Our long-term infrastructure investments ensure cargo fluidity as Savannah’s container trade increases,” McKnight said. “By improving our berthing for today’s larger vessels, expanding container storage and doubling our rail lift capacity, we’re making sure the GPA is ready when our customers are ready to grow.”

A prime example of the infrastructure improvements underway at the Port of Savannah is the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, which is now more than 75% finished. In the latest milestone for the project, rail cars began traveling along newly installed track linking the Garden City Terminal’s Chatham and Mason rail yards.

When completed, the Mason Mega Rail Terminal will give the port enough additional capacity to ship goods to cities in the nation’s Mid-South and Midwest regions.

While there’s no guarantee the container trade at the Port of Savannah will continue to increase so quickly, GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch noted the recent growth came during a global pandemic.

“To have achieved all-time record volumes in two of the last three months is a tribute to the hard work and collaboration between GPA and our partners throughout the supply chain,” Lynch said.

Meanwhile, the ports authority also broke a record in October for handling vehicles and machinery units at the Port of Brunswick.

The port moved 78,772 roll-on/roll-off units during the month, an increase of 24% over October 2019. The previous monthly record was set back in April 2015.

Georgia election officials dismiss fraud claims amid Trump attacks, lawsuits

Georgia officials continued batting back claims of election fraud Monday as a second recount of the presidential election neared completion and President Donald Trump attacked one of his biggest supporters in the state, Gov. Brian Kemp.

A federal lawsuit filed by a Trump supporter to halt the election results and re-verify absentee-ballot signatures also moved forward Monday, with a judge ordering officials in Cobb, Gwinnett and Cherokee counties not to tamper with data on voting machines before a hearing can be held later this week.

Amid legal challenges, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has faced attacks from fellow Republicans and threats from Trump allies in recent days, on Monday denounced “dishonest actors” for spreading “massive amounts of misinformation” about Georgia’s election integrity since the Nov. 3 election.

“There are those who are exploiting the emotions of many Trump supporters with fantastic claims, half-truths [and] misinformation,” Raffensperger, a Republican, said at a news conference Monday. “And, frankly, they are misleading the president as well, apparently.”

Raffensperger’s comments came hours after Trump took to Twitter Monday to call Kemp “the hapless Governor of Georgia” and pressure him to force election officials to match mail-in voters’ signatures on the envelopes of their absentee ballots with registration signatures as part of the ongoing recount.

“Georgia Republicans are angry, all Republicans are angry,” said Trump. “Get it done!”

Trump also said over the weekend he was “ashamed” to have endorsed Kemp in the Athens Republican’s run for governor in 2018, marking a major rebuke of one of his strongest allies in the state shortly before the president is scheduled to hold a rally in Georgia on Saturday.

Kemp’s office said the governor supports scrutinizing a sample of absentee-ballot signatures for any irregularities, but that state law bars him “from interfering in elections” or taking control over oversight actions done by Raffensperger, who is an elected official.

Election officials in Georgia have repeatedly dismissed claims from Trump and his allies of widespread absentee-ballot signature fraud as unfounded, noting the push to match signatures again without a court order is unlikely since mail-in voters’ signatures were verified before the initial count on Nov. 3.

Official election results that were certified last week show Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,670 votes, a lead that was trimmed by around 1,500 votes earlier this month after officials conducted a hand recount of more than 5 million ballots cast in the state’s presidential contest.

Two federal lawsuits have been filed so far by Trump allies seeking to force election officials to re-verify voter signatures statewide and halt the election results from reaching the Electoral College.

One suit, filed by Atlanta attorney and vocal Trump supporter Lin Wood, was rejected by a federal judge on grounds it contained scant evidence of any election fraud and would more likely result in disenfranchising millions of Georgia voters. Wood’s attorneys have appealed the ruling.

The second suit, filed late last week by Texas attorney Sidney Powell, accuses Georgia’s new voting equipment of “ballot-stuffing” that allegedly mishandled 96,600 absentee ballots due partly to being compromised by Venezuelan and other foreign actors.

“Georgia’s election officials and poll workers exacerbated and helped, whether knowingly or unknowingly, the [voting] system to carry out massive voter manipulation by refusing to observe statutory safeguards for absentee ballots,” Powell’s lawsuit claims.

A hearing has been set for Friday to determine whether Powell’s legal team can inspect voting machines in Cobb, Gwinnett and Cherokee counties.

Georgia’s chief election manager, Gabriel Sterling, blasted many of the claims found in those lawsuits and circulating on social-media channels as “insanities, fever dreams [and] made-up Internet cabal.”

“It’s like playing a game of whack-a-mole,” Sterling said Monday. “Every time we knock down one, there’s a crazier one.”

Still, Sterling noted election officials have launched investigations in some counties stemming from specific fraud and irregularity complaints, including one claim that more absentee ballots were counted than there were envelopes in Gwinnett County.

In all, Sterling and Raffensperger said officials are working through 250 investigations into election issues opened since the start of 2020, though none so far have suggested any evidence of widespread fraud capable of changing the presidential election’s outcome in Georgia.

Raffensperger’s office is now focusing on allegations of groups attempting to register people from outside Georgia and those temporarily staying in the state like college students for the U.S. Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5.

On Monday, Raffensperger highlighted four groups under investigation for allegedly sending mail-in ballot applications to voters in New York City, encouraging out-of-state college students to swap residences for the election and trying to register a dead Alabama woman to vote in the Georgia runoffs.

“This office will continue to take steps to protect the voting rights of the legally registered voters in this state,” Raffensperger said.

Initial unemployment claims in Georgia increase after weeks-long downward trend

First-time unemployment claims in Georgia rose last week.

ATLANTA – First-time unemployment claims rose in Georgia last week for the first time since early October.

Newly jobless Georgians filed 29,088 claims last week, up 9,462 over the previous week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.

The agency paid out $153 million in state and federal unemployment benefits last week, bringing to more than $16 billion the benefits distributed since March, when the coronavirus pandemic first prompted Georgia businesses to close and lay off workers.

Since the week ending March 21, the labor department has processed nearly 4.1 million initial unemployment claims, more than the last nine years combined.

The job sector that accounted for the most first-time claims last week was accommodation and food services with 10,124 claims. The administrative and support services sector was next with 2,496 claims, followed by health care and social assistance with 2,256.

More than 168,000 jobs are currently listed on EmployGeorgia. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs. 

Georgia lawmakers seek special session for voter ID changes before Senate runoffs

Certified results from the 2020 general election saw President-elect Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in Georgia by 12,670 votes. (Photo by Beau Evans)

A group of Republican state lawmakers are calling for the General Assembly to hold a special session ahead of the Jan. 5 runoff elections for U.S. Senate to consider changes to Georgia’s voter ID laws amid testiness over the recent presidential contest.

State election officials have said a second recount of the Nov. 3 presidential election that began Tuesday likely will not include inspecting signatures on absentee ballot envelopes, which allies of President Donald Trump have demanded since his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia.

In Georgia, county election officials verify mail-in voters by matching the signatures they are required to make on ballot envelopes with their signatures on file from when they registered. The envelopes are then separated from the actual ballots to protect voter privacy, making it tough to re-match those signatures later.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office has repeatedly said state and local officials have found no evidence so far of any widespread fraud in this month’s general election. Raffensperger has, however, advocated for tightening the state’s voter ID laws.

Gov. Brian Kemp has not said whether he would convene the legislature before the regular session on Jan. 11. His office responded Tuesday with a prior statement from the governor, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, saying they “share the same concerns many Georgians have about the integrity of our elections.”

If a special session is convened, lawmakers should consider creating a notary or photo ID requirement for voting by mail and hold committee hearings on “any evidence of voter fraud,” four Republican state senators who called for the session said in a news release.

“As the [first recount] has shown, we have structural issues with the implementation and proper execution of our ballot counting procedures,” read a joint statement from Sens. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; William Ligon, R-Brunswick; Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; and Burt Jones, R-Jackson.

A statewide hand recount that wrapped up last week confirmed Biden’s win over Trump in Georgia by 12,670 votes out of a record-setting roughly 5 million ballots cast in the election amid a surge of mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump has not yet conceded defeat and his allies in Georgia have homed in on the process for verifying voter signatures on absentee ballots as problematic not only for the presidential election, but also potentially for the intensely watched U.S. Senate runoffs in January.

Georgia’s two Senate runoff races are poised for high turnout due to their unique importance. Wins by both Democratic candidates over the Republican incumbent senators would give Democrats control over the White House and Congress for at least the next two years.

Many Georgia Republican leaders have pointed to roughly 5,000 ballots that went uncounted in the initial election results but were discovered during the hand recount that wrapped up last week as proof of problems with the election system. Those ballots trimmed Biden’s lead over Trump by 1,900 votes.

State election officials had said prior to the recount that they expected to find some discrepancies from the original count, but stressed also any additional recount or effort to again verify signatures would not likely change the ultimate outcome of the presidential election.

Even so, among those pushing to verify signatures and change the state voter ID law is Kemp, who last week called the discovery of thousands of ballots during the hand recount “simply unacceptable.”

However, the governor also recently railed against “baseless attacks [on Georgia’s election system] that are absolutely absurd.”

“These are ridiculous,” Kemp said at a news conference Tuesday. “They only seek to breed fear, create confusion and sow discord among our citizens.

“We must ignore those that want to divide us and find a way to overcome the challenges that we all face together.”

Early voting for the Senate runoff elections starts Dec. 14. The deadline for Georgia voters to register for the runoffs is Dec. 7.