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Local Govt & Politics

    A federal judge has granted a request by a medical sterilizer in Cobb to resume full operations immediately by issuing a temporary restraining order against the county, which had sought to limit its activities.  The order expires after 14 days. Cobb Spokesman Ross Cavitt said the county had no immediate comment.  The company, Sterigenics, welcomed the decision in a statement. “This ruling enables Sterigenics to serve the urgent needs of health care workers and patients, without product limitation, as we begin the proceeding to establish our right to continue the safe operation of our longstanding facility in the interests of public health,” the company said. Sterigenics became the focus of local protests after a July report by WebMD and Georgia Health News highlighted possible increased cancer risk for surrounding neighborhoods due to the facility’s use of ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas.  The plant has been closed since summer, at first to install new pollution controls and later pending the issuance of new permits by the county. Last week, County Chairman Mike Boyce, under pressure from the federal government, signed an emergency order allowing the plant to reopen on a limited, temporary basis in order to sterilize personal protective equipment to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  The company sued shortly thereafter to remove any restrictions on its operations, arguing that Cobb lacked the authority to compel it to seek a new occupancy permit to comply with fire safety regulations.  The restraining order comes a day after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General issued a report criticizing the EPA’s failure to inform communities living near “high-priority ethylene oxide-emitting facilities,” including Sterigenics in Cobb and Becton Dickinson in Covington, of potential health risks and actions being taken to address those risks. The report points out that EPA officials only met with residents in Georgia after the public learned of their cancer risks through news media, almost a year after the release of the federal National Air Toxics Assessment highlighting those risks.  The EPA has argued that public outreach should be left to states, the report says.  “We agree that the Agency should continue its ongoing efforts to conduct additional, more refined investigations of risks for communities near the 25 high-priority facilities and the census block facilities,” the IG’s report reads. “However, these efforts should not preclude the Agency and the respective states from promptly informing the communities near the high-priority facilities about the [National Air Toxics Assessment] results and the actions that the EPA and the states are taking to address public health concerns associated with ethylene oxide emissions.” The inspector general concluded that the office’s recommendation is “unresolved,” and officials are requesting a meeting within 30 days with the EPA’s associate deputy administrator. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler responded in a statement, saying “The tone and substance of this report indicates a disconnect in the US EPA IG’s office.”  “Most surprising is that in our final meeting with the IG’s office on this matter they provided no indication that there would be any unresolved issues,” he said. “As a result, we are formally requesting the EPA IG rescind the report so it can be appropriately updated.” This is a developing story...Please return to AJC.com for updates.
  • Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday said that Georgia now has new equipment and supplies that will allow university facilities and the state’s public health lab to significantly increase the number of coronavirus tests processed, a critical step in combating the pandemic.  So far, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows, the state has ranked near the bottom in the U.S. in testing per capita. However, the state’s public health lab and labs at Augusta University, Emory and Georgia State will be able to handle 3,000 coronavirus tests per day, Kemp said. That new capacity is expected to be fully available in the next five to seven days.   A national shortage of kits and other testing supplies and lab processing capacity has resulted in rationing of coronavirus tests throughout Georgia and across the U.S. The new processing capacity will allow the state and university labs to deliver results to hospitals and public health agencies faster. Lessening the lag time for results will give officials a clearer picture of the virus’ spread. Though the news release said testing capacity will expand, the state did not say if this new processing capacity will allow testing to be broadened beyond current restrictions.  Limited testing — both statewide and across the country — has hampered the U.S. response to COVID-19, denying officials the information needed to determine how prevalent the virus is, health experts told the AJC. Because it’s unclear how many cases there are, and where, governments have been forced to issue sweeping orders closing schools and businesses and restricting movement, expert say. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia In a statement, Kemp said “adequate testing for COVID-19 has continued to be a top priority for the Coronavirus Task Force as we fight this pandemic.”  “We hope this surge capacity plan will allow federal and state public health officials to gain a more complete picture of COVID-19’s impact on Georgia and better inform our collective decisions going forward,” he said. The expanded test processing, a collaboration between the University System of Georgia, Emory and state agencies, also will come with improvements to the supply chain to make it more resilient to disruptions.  As of noon Tuesday, the state public health lab and commercial labs combined had processed only 16,181 tests of Georgians. An AJC analysis of national testing data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project found Georgia ranked 43rd per capita in testing and 11th overall in total number of confirmed cases. Spokespeople for Kemp did not immediately answer questions concerning why Georgia has lagged other states in testing.  On Twitter, Cody Hall, a Kemp spokesman, said testing in Georgia had been stymied by a “combination of lack of private sector vendors for testing supplies and dozens of states requesting more from feds.” But all states are confronting similar issues. The AJC analysis shows that Georgia lags behind all but eight states and Puerto Rico on a per capita basis.  Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State School of Public Health, said the new capacity will help overcome a backlog of pending tests. But, he said, the slow rollout of testing has allowed the virus to spread across the state. “Performing an adequate number of tests to understand the extent of the problem is critical to decision-making,” Heiman said. “Mounting an appropriate public health response requires accurate data on the impact of the disease across the state. We’ve been flying blind for a long time. I don’t understand why we’re behind so many other states.”  Heiman said the state needs to impose greater restrictions on public movement to help curb the outbreak. Overcoming the backlog  Georgia’s public health agencies and health systems have been rationing tests, directing that they be performed on only the very sick, those who live in group setting such as nursing homes, and emergency and health workers.  Kemp and top Georgia hospitals have urged people with mild to moderate symptoms not to seek tests and to ride out their illnesses in isolation at home. That was, in part, to preserve testing supplies and prevent the spread of COVID-19. That advice appears likely to remain in place, at least for now.  Kemp’s office did not immediately answer whether the state will be able to expand availability of tests to a broader portion of the population. Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory epidemiologist, said Tuesday’s announcement shows Kemp is making testing a priority.  But Del Rio said now is not the time for healthy people anxious about the disease to seek tests as the state works to clear its backlog of pending tests. Georgia health systems and patients have complained to the AJC of one- to two-week waits to receive results of coronavirus tests, much of the data that has trickled in so far is days old.  It’s unclear how many tests are pending at private labs. One Middle Georgia public health district recently reported an eight- to-nine-day delay in receiving tests results. The state also has not published a count of its test backlog, as other states have done. A state Department of Public Health spokeswoman has said only that it takes 24 hours to 72 hours, including shipping, for its lab to process tests.  Hospitals must treat all presumed COVID-19 patients as if they have the disease and hold them in strict isolation for days as they await results. That means, if patients turn out to not have the disease, precious resources have been diverted from confirmed coronavirus victims. “You need real-time data,” Del Rio said. “Real-time data is the only way to stop the spread of this infection.”  Del Rio said South Korea leads the world in testing on a per capita basis at about 1 percent of its population. The U.S., by contrast, has tested about 1 million of its 330 million, or about one-third of 1 percent of the population. After a slow start, testing has grown in the U.S., where more total tests have been performed overall than in any other nation.  “This is a national problem. It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Del Rio said. “Quite frankly, every state has been late.”
  • Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on Sunday grappled with blowback from a top aide’s comments blasting local governments for “overreacting” to the coronavirus outbreak by enacting tougher restrictions on movement and commerce than those called for by the governor. Local leaders and some state Democrats said they felt blindsided by the criticism from Kemp’s chief of staff, Tim Fleming, after the governor has repeatedly endorsed local stay-at-home orders and other steps to curb the virus’ spread. The fallout occurred on the same day as President Donald Trump approved Georgia’s disaster declaration, clearing the way for more federal assistance. And the virus’ spread has showed no signs of slowing. Georgia’s Department of Public Health on Sunday reported 2,683 confirmed cases in Georgia of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That’s up nearly 10 percent from 2,446 cases on Saturday. The total number of confirmed deaths rose by four from a day earlier, to 83. Map: Coronavirus cases in Georgia Dashboard: COVID-19 stats in Georgia Kemp so far has balked at tighter statewide restrictions such as a shelter-in-place mandate or an order halting dine-in service at all Georgia restaurants. But local leaders have said they appreciated the governor’s frequent remarks supporting mayors’ and county commissioners’ embrace of steeper restrictions. Last week saw a cascade of local political leaders imposing restrictions on in-person dining, closing businesses not deemed essential and banning large gatherings of people. “It’s one thing to push responsibility onto local government,” said state Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs. “It’s a more unbelievable thing to criticize them for acting.” It’s unclear which local governments Fleming targeted, and the governor’s office didn’t elaborate. In his Facebook post late Saturday, Fleming said “doomsday” models of the disease’s path has led to “people panicking and local governments across our state overreacting.” “As a result of their overreach, many small businesses will struggle and some will not reopen,” Fleming said. Another Kemp adviser, Jeremy Brand, a consultant who has no official role in the administration, said broadly that Georgians should recognize how quickly public officials exert authority “sometimes based on nothing more than hysteria.” The remarks triggered confusion and dismay among some local officials. “Is it too much to ask for some consistency within and out of the governor’s office?” said Andy Bauman, a Sandy Springs councilman. “C’mon ladies and gentlemen, let’s all get on the same page.” ‘Stringent action’ The comments from Kemp confidantes punctuate a week in which the governor has ordered new steps to combat the disease that have stopped short of the more severe restrictions many of his critics want him to impose. In the last six days, the governor has ordered that schools remained close through late April, banned many gatherings, shut down bars and nightclubs, authorized health officials to shutter businesses that don’t enforce social distancing and urged “medically fragile” and certain others to stay home. Related: Study: Georgia COVID-19 pandemic to peak week of April 22 More: Complete coronavirus coverage Kemp took another step on Sunday, announcing the state Department of Natural Resources will enforce restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people in state parks and lakes. The move followed reports of large gatherings of boaters on Lakes Oconee and Sinclair in middle Georgia. Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said the administration will continue to support local governments if they decide to pursue more “stringent action,” despite Fleming’s remarks. “They know their communities. We continue to offer and deploy resources. Ask Dougherty County and Albany officials. Ventilators, bed space, staff, supplies — we’re getting more and sharing with those in need,” she said. Fleming, a former Newton County commissioner, was critical of how local governments decide which businesses are “essential” and which are not during a public health emergency. “Local governments have now begun to cherry pick what businesses will remain open,” he wrote on Facebook. Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman said the order to close some businesses in his city, ban in-person dining and issue a shelter-in-place order was “a very, very difficult decision.” “No one came to us with a doomsday model and said, ‘You need to do this, or else Y is going to happen,’” he said. “… All of us are very aware of how it’s going to hurt our local economy.” Others applauded Kemp’s stance. Walton County Commission Chairman Kevin Little said Sunday tighter restrictions aren’t yet needed in his northeast Georgia community. “I’m not really big on government control and government telling you what to do,” he said, adding: “We just really don’t want to draw Walton County to a complete halt economically.” ‘Totally different level’ The Georgia Municipal Association pressed hundreds of mayors to declare a public health emergency and take far-reaching steps to restrict mobility. As cities and counties imposed new restrictions, it’s left a patchwork of rules across the state. It’s also led to mounting pushback from some health experts and politicians. House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, are among the influential state leaders who have publicly urged Kemp to take more severe action. “If we overreact, thank God we overreact,” Ralston said last week. Broce said Fleming has fielded calls from mayors and county commissioners about how “confusing these local orders have become.” Russell Edwards, a commissioner for the unified Athens-Clarke County government, said any confusion over the patchwork restrictions of local governments is a result of Kemp’s refusal to take statewide action. “Don’t tell us one thing and then attack us for doing it,” said Edwards, who added that some of his constituents are using Fleming’s remarks to criticize Athens’ shelter-in-place restrictions. “I’d surely like to know which experts Tim is referencing, because Georgia’s top doctors and epidemiologists are on a totally different level than Tim,” Edwards said. Staff writer Asia Simone Burns contributed to this report.
  • Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce declared a State of Emergency for the county Tuesday night and ordered residents to shelter in place in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  “This is unprecedented times for the nation, state and Cobb County,” Boyce said in a statement. “The health and safety of our residents is our top priority. We are taking the necessary steps as recommended by public health experts to ensure that the county is prepared and responding to this virus, and this order helps us do that.” From 12 pm Wednesday until April 15, public gatherings — whether inside or outdoors — of more than 10 people are prohibited anywhere in the county, it said.  Furthermore, businesses not included in the list of “essential” businesses published in the order can only operate from 6 am to 9 pm. Restaurants may only provide takeout or delivery services.  Boyce said he may amend the declaration to close all non-essential businesses and tighten other restrictions if the new measures do not slow the virus sufficiently.  The chairman’s decision followed a special called meeting Tuesday where public health experts issued grave warnings about the COVID-19 pandemic. Janet Memarck, director of Cobb and Douglas Public Health, and Daniel Branstetter, the medical director of infection prevention at Wellstar, both warned that the county was dangerously close to exceeding the capacity of its healthcare system given the exponential infection rate of COVID-19.  They emphasized Cobb’s density and many older residents and elder care facilities as particular risk factors.  “Eighty percent of people standing in this room will get COVID-19 no matter what action you take today,” said Branstetter, emphasizing the need to slow the infection rate and spread it out over time. “What we need to do is put in measures so our healthcare personnel can be available, the equipment, the supplies, the testing, medications, the ventilators can be available to take care of each and every one of us,” he added.  Boyce called the information “sobering.” “Not enough people are really taking this seriously because not enough people that they know have been infected,” Boyce said. “This is a virulent disease and we have to start taking it seriously.”
  • Georgia’s Phoebe Putney Health System, facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus, has loaded templates to make face masks online for donors locally and around the world to help the hospital group overcome a dire shortage of supplies. Phoebe Putney, which operates four hospitals in the Albany area, said Sunday it posted the instructions because the system has been flooded with offers to help with the supply shortfall. System leaders have said supplies of protective gear such as gowns, gloves, eye shields and special N95 respirator masks are in short supply. Employees at Phoebe Putney started sewing their own masks for hospital workers to cover their remaining N95s and extend the N95s’ life spans. “We have been overwhelmed with calls from people around the country who also want to help,” Phoebe Director of Volunteer Services Suzanne Perrine said in a news release. “While we can only provide materials to local volunteers, we are happy to share our mask-making instructions with volunteers and hospitals around the country. We will gladly accept masks from those who want to support Phoebe, and we encourage Americans to support hospitals in need in their communities as well.” Mask-making instructions and lists of needed supplies are posted online at http://www.phoebehealth.com/coronavirus. The hospital group said masks can be mailed to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, c/o Supply Chain, 1108 North Monroe St. Albany, Ga., 31701. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia Hospitals across the nation have been gripped by a shortage of coronavirus tests, protective gear and medical equipment such as swabs, complicating care of critically ill patients and putting hospital workers at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Just before noon on Sunday, Phoebe Putney reported more than 100 positive and suspected positive cases of COVID-19 at its main hospital. The system has reported 103 confirmed positive cases overall and six deaths. Nearly 700 other patients, either in-patient or out-patient, are awaiting results of coronavirus tests. Phoebe Putney said its employees and volunteers use surgical sheets to manufacture reusable masks, which are treated with water repellant. The system said if donors do not have surgical sheets, a thicker grade and washable 50/50 or 60/40 cotton-polyester blend fabric can be used. Albany’s Sherwood Baptist Church Hope Center also has set up a collection site to assist the hospitals. A list of needed supplies includes N95 masks, surgical masks, isolation gowns, gloves and sanitizing wipes. The hospital group is also seeking fruit and individually wrapped foods, such as nuts and cereal bars. Donations can be made Monday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 925 Pine Ave. Albany, Ga., 31701. The Phoebe Foundation is also accepting coronavirus relief donations at www.supportphoebe.org/coronavirusrelief. “We can’t say ‘thank you’ enough for everyone who has offered help,” Scott Steiner, Phoebe Putney’s CEO, said in the release. “The Phoebe Family feels your support, and you are helping us provide outstanding care and service to the people of southwest Georgia through this public health emergency.”
  • The new coronavirus recorded more firsts in Georgia this weekend: the first confirmed case of an Atlanta police officer, the first state prison inmates and one of the first known cases in an adolescent, a girl who was fighting for her life Saturday at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. The case involving 12-year-old Emma, relayed by a relative, is particularly concerning as COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, so far has been less likely to seriously strike the youngest members of the population. Just 1% of COVID-19 patients in Georgia are in the 0-17 age group, according to the state’s latest figures, though ages aren’t known for 26 percent of reported cases. Justin Anthony, a restaurateur whose restaurants include 10 Degrees South and Yebo Ski Haus, said his cousin Emma tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday night. Emma suffered from a fever that would not break for several days and visited the emergency room multiple times before being admitted to Scottish Rite on March 15 with what was believed to be pneumonia. But Anthony said Emma’s condition worsened and she was placed on a ventilator. Anthony said his family doesn’t know how Emma contracted the virus. Her mother is at the hospital with the child and Emma’s 13-year-old brother is in self-isolation and home alone. Relatives are bringing the boy food every day, but Anthony said they are unable to have physical contact with the boy. Anthony said the family discussed Emma’s case because they want people to know the risk also falls on children. “Kids can get it and I know one who’s fighting for her life,” he said. » COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia Children’s Healthcare confirmed the hospital has one COVID-19 patient in isolation but declined to provide any details citing federal privacy laws. The AJC is not identifying the child’s last name and limiting identifying details to protect the family’s privacy. Anthony told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Saturday afternoon that doctors informed the family Emma is stable and that they were lowering the concentration of oxygen she was receiving to determine if her lungs could handle it. Economic fallout The fallout of COVID-19 continues to be felt across Georgia and the nation. Restaurants, retailers and hotels closed their doors and states across country prepared for the continued onslaught of new unemployment claims. On Saturday, CEOs of major airlines, including Atlanta-based Delta, urged Washington to approve a mammoth multibillion-dollar bailout of the industry. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian and the chief executives nine major carriers and the industry’s lobbying group want a federal airline bailout to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The CEOs promised not to furlough employees through August if they get $29 billion in payroll grants. Reports this week indicate that the White House and Senate Republicans are offering up to $50 billion in loans to airlines but not grants. » PHOTOS: Atlantans out and about amid restrictions The U.S. Senate convened Saturday to work on a coronavirus stimulus package. Some oppose the taxpayer-funded bailouts and have urged Congress to enact consumer protections as conditions for the aid. “Time is running out,” the airline CEOs’ letter says. “The worker payroll protection grants are critical to saving the jobs of our employees.” The airline executives are also pushing for at least $29 billion in loans or loan guarantees, and are pledging that if they get them, they will put limits on executive compensation and eliminate stock buybacks and dividends for the life of the loans. Delta has already announced plans to slash 70 % of its flights and is parking at least half its fleet and more than 13,000 Delta employees have taken voluntary unpaid leave. Virus spreads The state reported 555 confirmed cases are now in Georgia, though the death toll climbed Saturday night to 20, up from 14 the day before. Cases have now been reported in more than one third of Georgia’s 159 counties. Fulton (99), Bartow (56), Cobb (50), Dougherty (47) and DeKalb (41) reported the most cases. Phoebe Putney Health System in the southwest Georgia city of Albany, which has been hit hard by the outbreak, reported an additional coronavirus-related death bringing the tally at its hospital system to five. Phoebe Putney, which operates four hospitals in the Albany area, has 83 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 700 patients either in its hospitals or in-home isolation who are awaiting test results, according to a news release. An Atlanta police spokesman confirmed its first known COVID-19 case on Saturday. The officer, who was not named, was posted at the department’s headquarters. Spokesman Carlos Campus said the department’s ability to respond to emergencies has not been affected. Police did not say whether the officer exhibited any symptoms at work, or if the officer came in contact with residents in their day-to-day duties. A civilian at Robins Air Force Base in Middle Georgia also tested positive, officials at the base said. » WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak renders Atlanta city streets quiet State officials said late Friday that three Georgia inmates are now confirmed to have COVID-19. The incarcerated men are from Lee State Prison, a 762-unit medium-level detention center in southwest Georgia’s Lee County, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. All three men have been hospitalized since earlier this week. COVID-19 also has spread among officials at Georgia’s state Capitol. A second state senator disclosed she has tested positive for the virus and other legislators and staffers reported feeling symptoms after the state’s entire legislative branch was urged to self-quarantine. State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick disclosed her diagnosis late Friday and that she had been in self-quarantine since she felt sick a week ago. An orthopedic surgeon, Kirkpatrick is a member of Gov. Brian Kemp’s coronavirus task force. State Sen. Bruce Thompson, who has been hospitalized for respiratory issues, was released Saturday but will remain in isolation. He said results of a coronavirus test are pending. State Sen. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia, and Liz Flowers, the director of the Senate Democratic Caucus, also have reported feeling symptoms. New restrictions On Saturday, Tucker became the second Georgia city to enact a curfew, joining South Fulton. Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis signed an executive order limiting public and private gatherings to fewer than 10 people and closing some businesses, including bars, nightclubs, salons, entertainment venues and restaurants with dine-in-only service, according to the Augusta Chronicle. Government orders to close businesses have crippled many small operators, including restaurant company owners like Anthony. On top of his cousin’s coronavirus diagnosis, Anthony said he had to shut down his restaurants and lay off more than 100 workers. But he said the risk to public health was too great for governments to allow restaurants to remain open. Anthony said he is working on a plan to use the kitchens in his restaurants to cook donated meals to displaced hospitality workers and potentially health care workers. “People on the front lines need to be fed,” he said. Staff writers Shaddi Abusaid, Greg Bluestein, Max Blau, Joshua Sharpe and Kelcie Willis contributed to this report. LATEST NEWS   Stay up to date with reliable information from the AJC about the coronavirus and our community. Sign up for our special newsletter that tracks the latest news. https://myaccount.ajc.com/ajc/preference
  • City of Atlanta employees have complained that they are receiving contradictory messages about whether they must report to City Hall, or if they should work from home during the coronavirus pandemic. One employee in planning said workers were mandated to come into the office because the department wasn’t set up for teleworking. “It’s a deserted ghost town and we are the only ones here,” said the employee, who asked not to be name out fear of being fired. “We are just all scared to death to be here.” A city spokesman said Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms “has made it abundantly clear that the City of Atlanta has implemented its teleworking policy.” “We have taken significant measures to ensure city operations continue without disruption while working to protect the health of our employees,” the spokesman said. “To the extent that there are employees within City Hall, every precaution is being taken to ensure that they are able to exercise appropriate social distancing.” The employee said planning department supervisors have mandated that employees must report to City Hall, and those with concerns about being exposed have to take sick leave or vacation time to stay outside of the office. On Friday, the city’s Human Resources Department issued a citywide memo saying that effective immediately all non-essential employees were to work from home and essential employees should report to work as usual. The memo did not identify what workers the city considered essential. “No one knows what criteria the city is using,” said Gina Pagnotta-Murphy, president of the Professional Association of City Employees of Atlanta. Pagnotta-Murphy said she fields a dozen calls a day from employees complaining, and that the Public Works Department issued a memo Wednesday defining all employees as essential. Despite the memo, Pagnotta-Murphy said, some public works employees were still performing their jobs from home. The department oversees trash collection, some infrastructure projects and transportation permits, among other city services. Pagnotta-Murphy said she has requested that the city give premium hazard pay — double the normal pay rate — to employees who must report to work. “We are a risk to our families,” she said. Some contradictory messages about the city’s internal response to the pandemic have come from the highest levels. On Sunday afternoon, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sent out a robo call warning residents about the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus. She said the city had implemented its teleworking policy and that City Hall would be closed to the public for the next two weeks — but that fire, police, water and trash services would continue as normal. “While we are not panicked in Atlanta,” Bottoms said, “we do strongly emphasize the need to take precaution and or preparedness.” A couple hours later, Chief Procurement Officer David L. Wilson II said he had checked with human resources and that the city hadn’t sent a robo call, according to an email obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If you have received this call, disregard,” Wilson wrote to his employees. He then identified roughly 10 senior procurement managers, himself included, as essential employees and told them to report to work Monday morning for a leadership meeting. He told other employees they could participate over the phone. Wilson did not explain why the managers needed to come into the office.
  • An individual associated with Kincaid Elementary School in Cobb County has tested positive for the coronavirus, the district said in a statement Wednesday.  Due to federal privacy laws, the district said it could not share specifics about the case. “We have prioritized the health of Kincaid students and staff by deciding to close Kincaid Elementary for the next 14 days beginning on March 12th,” it said in a statement. “Within 48 hours of school closure, and following DPH guidelines, Cobb staff will thoroughly clean and sanitize the entire campus, including buses. No other Cobb schools are closed at this time.” Affected students will get “digital classroom content” from their teachers using “a variety of digital platforms and tools,” it said.  The school is located near Sandy Plains Road in East Cobb. The statement concluded saying the district will continue following the direction and guidance of public health authorities.  Check back for updates...
  • A plan to improve safety and oversight in Georgia’s senior care homes sailed through the House on Friday in a near-unanimous vote. The proposal now heads to the Senate, and if it is adopted there and signed into law, it would increase training requirements and safety protections for seniors in assisted living and large personal care homes. It would also increase fines for abuse and neglect in homes in the rapidly growing industry that cares for thousands of elderly Georgians. HB 987, which passed the House on a 160-1 vote, has been championed by Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, who shepherded it through the House in little more than a week after she and her co-sponsors introduced the bill. She said the bill was a “carefully crafted compromise” that tried to balance concerns of senior advocates as well as the care industry. » SEARCHABLE DATABASE: Details on every facility studied by the AJC » MORE: The ‘Unprotected’ investigative series “I’m a nurse,” said Cooper, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. “I believe in prevention. This is a proactive approach.” Cooper drafted the legislation to address many of the problems outlined in an investigative series published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall. The series found nearly 700 cases of neglect and abuse documented in these facilities across the state and more than 20 deaths linked to breakdowns in care. Cooper and Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, mentioned the AJC investigation on the House floor as they urged colleagues to adopt the bill. Smyre said he was particularly touched by a piece in the series that told the story of a 92-year-old great grandmother with dementia who died when she wandered away from a Macon facility in the middle of the night, fell down a steep hill and broke her neck. He said his grandmother had also wandered from a care facility, but she was found uninjured, and his family was able to move her to a different home. “We need to continue to create good public policy to oversee the senior care facilities so we can stop such tragedies in the future,” Smyre said. “This is a huge step in the right direction.” The lone dissenting vote in the House came from Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague, D-Red Oak. Beasley-Teague did not respond before deadline to a call seeking comment. The bill, which will go next to the Senate, would require administrators who run assisted living facilities or large personal care homes to receive special training and licenses, similar to the requirements placed on nursing home administrators. It would also require facilities to get certification for memory care units and employ staff who are more highly trained to care for people with dementia. The proposal also recognizes the complexities of caring for these residents and would require more around-the-clock staff on these special units. The bill also would require assisted living homes and memory care centers to have nurses on staff for a minimum number of hours each week, depending on how many people reside at the home. The AJC series revealed that state oversight of the senior care homes is weak and that the Georgia oversight agency doesn’t have sufficient staff to conduct annual inspections. It also revealed how a gold rush mentality to profit from aging seniors led to a building boom in Georgia, creating competitive pressures that caused some facilities to struggle financially and care to suffer. The bill acknowledges this issue with a new requirement for facilities to disclose financial problems and ownership changes that could impact care. As part of getting a state license, homes would also have to demonstrate they are financially viable. » RELATED: Advocates urge lawmakers to fund reform of senior care system » MORE: As state struggles to protect seniors, agency mum on more inspectors The bill also would increase fines for deaths or serious injuries linked to poor care. Currently, many of the most serious cases of harm result in a state fine of mo more than $601. Under the bill, the minimum fine would roughly double, and cases where a home is cited in relation to death or serious harm would result in a minimum fine of $5,000. It’s unclear when the Senate will hear the bill, but Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, plans to help push to get it passed. He is Gov. Brian Kemp’s Senate floor leader and said he is hopeful the bill will gain support. “The governor’s office has been working with Chairwoman Cooper on this from the beginning,” Strickland said. “I plan on leading the charge to get it passed.” Gail Walker, the daughter of the woman whose story Smyre recounted on the House floor, has been following the legislative reform efforts, and she is hopeful change is coming that will help protect seniors in the future. She said she was heartened by the fact that the retelling of her mother’s tragic end in 2015 may have helped effect positive change. “I know my mother would be very excited that her situation helped somebody else along the way,” Walker said. “It makes what happened to my mother a little bit easier to accept.”
  • If you live in Georgia and want to vote in the primaries then the deadline to register is Monday. Voters can check their voter registration status at the state’s My Voter Page. The website provides Election Day precinct locations, early voting locations, absentee ballot applications and sample ballots.  There are more than 7.2 million registered voters in Georgia. Advance voting begins March 2, but the last day to register is Monday, Feb. 24, according to Georgia law. The Presidential Preference Primary will be the first time voters statewide use Georgia’s new secure paper-ballot system.  “The secure paper-ballot system is in place to provide voters assurance their ballots are secure. Georgians need to do their part by registering,” Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said. “We have made registering easy and convenient, which is why the number of Georgia voters is soaring.”  All Georgians should check their voter registration information to make sure they are still registered where they currently reside. They can check your registration using the My Voter Page (MVP) website (https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov). If they are not able to locate their registration using the MVP website, or your information displayed on the MVP website is not accurate, they may submit a new voter registration application or update the information in your existing registration online at this link: https://registertovote.sos.ga.gov.  Registration is also possible at county elections offices, state agencies that provide food stamps and Medicaid and mental health, military recruiting centers and public libraries.  Preparations for the Presidential Preference Primary includes the removal of the 18-year-old voting machines and delivery to every county of the new secure paper-ballot system, as well as technical support and training to county elections supervisors who are responsible for training the poll workers they hire locally.  The paper-ballot system has been used in six counties in a pilot during the November municipal elections and then the December runoff. It was also used in special elections in a total of 12 counties held Jan. 28 and Feb. 4.  An important feature of the new system is the ability to audit the results. Two public audits, using different methods, have already demonstrated the accuracy and reliability of the results.  To educate voters on ways Georgia is protecting election integrity, Raffensperger launched Secure the Vote. More information is online at SecureVoteGa.com.  Georgia is a leader in election innovation and access with automatic voter registration through the Department of Driver Services, three weeks of early voting – including a Saturday, and no-excuse absentee voting. It is the top state in the number of motor voter registrations and, in the last election cycle, experienced record registration and a record increase in turnout.