COVID-19 cases in Georgia nearing last winter’s peak

Emory University’s Dr. Carlos del Rio (Emory University video)

ATLANTA – Cases of COVID-19 in Georgia have surged to levels not seen since the virus peaked last January, a public health expert warned this week.

New cases statewide are nearing 8,000 a day, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Of Georgians being tested for COVID-19, 17.2% are turning up positive, Dr. Janet Memark, district health director for Cobb & Douglas Public Health, said Thursday during an online forum sponsored by the Georgia House Democratic Caucus. The community is considered safe when fewer than 5% of test results are positive, she said.

Memark blamed the delta variant, which is much more contagious than the original strain of coronavirus that first struck Georgia in March of last year.

“It is just really rampant now throughout our communities,” she said.

Memark said many hospitals are being strained, with unvaccinated Georgians making up the vast majority of rising patient loads.

“We are seeing some breakthrough cases,” she said. “But they’re not being hospitalized or dying. The vaccine is working.”

Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading epidemiologist at Emory University, said a person who contracts the delta variant of COVID-19 can infect up to eight others, making it much more dangerous than the original strain, which typically can infect two to three people exposed to someone with the virus.

“The virus we’re facing today is very different from the original virus,” he said. “This is so highly transmissible, it’s not the COVID we knew a year ago.”

Memark said another disturbing aspect of the current stage of COVID-19 is that it’s hitting children. In Georgia, cases involving children between the ages of 11 and 17 have doubled in the last week, she said.

The COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Pfizer won formal approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this week. However, that approval did not extend to children.

Del Rio said he expects researchers will have a vaccine available for kids by November or December.

Meanwhile, he said he’s concerned that COVID fatigue is causing Georgians to let down their guard at a dangerous time.

“We are in a major surge right now, yet the restaurants are full,” he said. “Everybody is acting as if nothing is going on.”

Del Rio said while vaccines are the best defense against COVID-19, including the delta variant, people still need to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently.

“People are very tired. I understand that,” he said. “We all want this to be over. [But] it’s not going to be over when we want.”

Georgia passed the 1 million mark in cases of coronavirus last week and was up to 1,056,788 cases as of Thursday afternoon. The virus has hospitalized 71,862 Georgians and resulted in 22,492 confirmed or probable deaths.

State school board approves new math standards for Georgia

ATLANTA – The Georgia Board of Education adopted new mathematics standards Thursday that move away from the multistate Common Core standards conservatives have opposed as a federal takeover of education.

The new K-12 standards were developed with input from Georgia teachers, school administrators, parents, students and business leaders. They will take a full year to implement, with the new school year dedicated to retraining math teachers.

The standards are designed to provide a strong foundation beginning in the early grades and present a reasonable amount of content each year, so students can master concepts rather than simply being quickly exposed to them.

“To ensure every Georgian is given the opportunity to learn, grow and succeed, [State School] Superintendent [Richard] Woods, the state school board and I are committed to developing quality academic standards,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday.

“I am confident the final math standards eliminate the remnants of Common Core, will provide an excellent education for our students and are based on an unprecedented level of collaboration from across the state.”

Common Core was an effort to write academic standards that would be shared by all 50 states.

The push for federal education standards gained traction in Georgia in 2010 when the state Board of Education adopted national standards for math and English/language arts that had been developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, who was serving at the time as co-chairman of the National Governors Association.

Supporters at the time, including the leadership of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, argued Common Core would help Georgia develop a workforce that could compete with other states.

While 45 states eventually adopted Common Core, support began to wane in Georgia and other Republican-led states amid fears by conservatives that national education standards took away state control.

“These new standards are Georgia-owned and Georgia-grown,” Woods said Thursday. “I am confident these standards are the best step forward for Georgia education.”

With the new math standards secured, the state Board of Education next will begin a review of the English/language arts standards.

Herschel Walker kicks off U.S. Senate campaign with video release

ATLANTA – University of Georgia football icon Herschel Walker officially launched his U.S. Senate campaign Wednesday with a short video touting his small-town Georgia roots and distaste for today’s brand of partisan politics.

Walker filed paperwork Tuesday to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, instantly vaulting to front-runner status for next year’s GOP primary.

The video, released on Twitter and YouTube, opens with shots of Walker’s hometown of Wrightsville and footage of his athletic performances as a sprinter in track and a running back in football, culminating in his winning the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player in 1982.

“I’m a kid from a small town in Georgia who’s lived the American dream, and I’m ready to fight to keep that dream alive,” he said in the video.

Walker criticized the divisiveness that characterizes politics today and vowed a different approach.

“The politicians pit Americans against Americans, rich versus poor, Black versus white, urban versus rural,” he said. “I don’t believe in that garbage. It’s a lie.

“I’m a conservative not because someone told me to be. I’m a conservative because I believe in smaller government, a strong military, personal responsibility and making sure all people have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. That’s an America worth fighting for.”

Georgia Democrats greeted Walker’s entry into the race as proof positive that Republican infighting will hurt the GOP’s chances to defeat Warnock. Walker enters a Republican contest that already features three declared candidates, with former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Warnock in January, a potential fourth entrant.

The best known of the three candidates preceding Walker in the race, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, sought to lure Walker away from pre-packaged messaging like Wednesday’s video, inviting him to hit the campaign trail and debate the issues in the flesh.

Walker is former President Donald Trump’s pick in the race, giving him a strong base of support among Trump loyalists in Georgia. Trump has been urging Walker for weeks to enter the contest.

Other Georgia Republicans, however, are anxious that the party move beyond Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to overturn the results of last year’s presidential election, culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Georgia Supreme Court hears challenge of tax on strip clubs

ATLANTA – Georgia’s 1% tax on strip clubs to raise funds to combat child sex trafficking unfairly punishes businesses with no connection to the sexual exploitation of children, a lawyer for the clubs said Wednesday.

But a lawyer for the state told the Georgia Supreme Court studies have shown strip clubs are frequented by child sex traffickers to lure customers, and taxing them is less harmful to those businesses than banning them altogether.

The General Assembly passed the Safe Harbor Act, also known as Rachel’s Law, in 2015 to create a source of tax revenue to support rehabilitative care and other social services for sexually exploited children. The following year, Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum adding the act to the state Constitution.

The Georgia Association of Club Executives (GACE) challenged the law in a lawsuit filed in 2017. Last year, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance C. Russell declared it unconstitutional because a section of the law that applied the tax to businesses that charge customers to view “persons exhibiting or modeling lingerie” was vague and could resort in arbitrary enforcement.

On Wednesday, Alexander Volokh, a lawyer representing GACE, argued the tax unfairly targets strip clubs to raise money to combat criminal activity for which they are not responsible.

“They’re being blamed and penalized for a problem they’re not involved in and don’t contribute to,” he said.

But Georgia Deputy Solicitor General Ross Bergethon said members of the General Assembly, in passing the law, relied on studies showing that both adult and child prostitution often occur inside strip clubs.

Courts have routinely upheld the right of governments to ban clubs that combine nude dancing with the sale of alcohol from their jurisdictions,  Bergethon said.

“There’s no reason to treat this minimal tax on the same combination any differently,” he said.

Volokh cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings that nude dancing is a constitutionally protected form of expression under the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech.

To get around that, the state would have to demonstrate the tax is necessary to combat child sex trafficking and that those funds could not be obtained through any other means, he said.

“The legislature could just have easily appropriated money from the general fund and be just as effective,” he said.

But Georgia Chief Justice David Nahmias told Volokh the case doesn’t just involve nude dancing because the clubs are engaged in a combination of nude dancing and the commercial sale of alcohol.

“There’s not a direct limitation on speech,” Nahmias said. “There’s a limitation on speech associated with the consumption of alcohol in a commercial setting.”

Nahmias also questioned Bergethon’s reliance on studies linking strip clubs to child sex trafficking.

“Almost all of the studies showed no connection between the clubs, prostitution, violence and child sex exploitation,” the chief justice said.

The court is expected to rule on the case later this year.

Herschel Walker running for U.S. Senate

ATLANTA – University of Georgia football icon Herschel Walker filed paperwork Tuesday to seek the Republican nomination for the Georgia U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Raphael Warnock.

Walker’s long-anticipated entry into the race promises to touch off a long, divisive campaign pitting Georgia Republicans loyal to former President Donald Trump against those who would rather move on from the controversy stirred by Trump’s reelection loss to Democrat Joe Biden last fall and subsequent unsuccessful bid to overturn the election.

Trump has been urging Walker, who has lived in Texas for decades, to jump into the contest. After publicly flirting with the idea for weeks, Walker registered to vote in Georgia last week.

On Tuesday, he filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission as well as a separate statement of organization for Team Herschel Inc., which will serve as his campaign team.

While Walker did not issue any statements on his candidacy on Tuesday, the Democratic Party of Georgia predicted it will damage  Republican chances of unseating Warnock next year.

“Walker’s entrance into Georgia’s chaotic GOP Senate primary is the nightmare scenario that Republicans have spent the entire [election] cycle trying to avoid,” Democratic spokesman Dan Gottlieb said.  “By the end of this long, divisive, and expensive intra-party fight, it’ll be clear that none of these candidates are focused on the issues that matter most to Georgians.”

Walker is by far the most well-known Republican in the race. Candidates who have already entered the contest include Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black; Latham Saddler, an Atlanta banking executive and former Navy SEAL officer; and Kelvin King, a small business owner and Air Force veteran from Atlanta.  

Black welcomed Walker to the race Tuesday by releasing a video inviting Walker to debate the issues with him across Georgia, starting with Saturday’s 8th Congressional District Fish Fry in Perry.

“I’ve been a big fan of yours since we were in college together, before you moved away,” Black said to Walker in the video, referring to the years Walker has spent away from Georgia.

Black used the same theme in a recent TV ad, contrasting Walker’s time in Texas with his Georgia background.

Warnock was elected to the Senate in a runoff last January, defeating Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Because he is completing the unexpired term of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Warnock must run for the seat again next year rather than get to serve a full six-year Senate term.