Lawmakers propose budget changes to fix state’s virus tracking system, more money for public health

ATLANTA — As people across Georgia continue to fight to get an appointment for their COVID-19 vaccine, lawmakers are proposing more money to fix the state’s antiquated tracking system, as well as infusing the state’s health department with funds so that it’s better prepared in the future if it ever has to deal with another pandemic.

Lou Ann Carmichael said it took six hours and 510 redials to get a hold of her public health district for an appointment for her COVID-19 vaccine, but she finally got one on Thursday.

“There’s got to be a better way,” Carmichael said. “Don’t make it so difficult to get through on the phone lines if they’re not going to come up with another way of registering for the vaccine.”

She lives in Spalding County, which is in the state’s Health District 4, where making appointments online isn’t possible.

“The very few people that we have are stretched thin. Then we’re using them in every possible way we can at this point,” said Hayla Folden, with District 4.

Folden told Channel 2′s Matt Johnson that it will take resources and money they don’t have to improve the system.

“Until we can get a different system, an automated system or a system that will allow you to put information in and schedule an appointment on a website, this is all we have right now,” Folden said.

State House lawmakers have heard the pleas of the public health community by passing budget changes that will next go to the Senate.


They proposed changing this year’s budget to add $18 million to replace an outdated vaccine tracking system.

Their proposal also includes $286,000 to hire three leadership positions.

For Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, he said public health funding is personal.

“In the last 24 hours, I’ve lost two friends. Everybody’s losing friends, family members, and we have to keep that on the front burner. And we did,” Ralston said.

The state public health department has received $1 billion in federal funding so far to specifically combat COVID-19. The governor’s original amended budget didn’t include more state dollars for that reason.

“We’re talking with Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey and her team. We believe that they have enough funds to adequately address the needs that the pandemic and the virus are presenting the state,” said Cody Hall with Gov. Brian Kemp’s office.

But some lawmakers said the Department of Public Health has been underfunded for more than a decade, and the state hasn’t recovered.

“If they would have funded Department of Public Health fully, then I think we’d be in better shape right now, a whole year into this,” state Rep. Shelly Hutchinson said.

In a post-pandemic world, some House Democrats said the department needs yearly increases to its budget to avoid the next crisis.

“I don’t want to increase taxes, but I think there are some ways we need to look at opportunities. You know, I personally think we should increase the cigarette tax,” said state Rep. Mary Robichaux.

Cliff Biggers said he got his first COVID-19 vaccine dose in Cobb County after more than 1,000 mouse clicks.

“1,200 clicks — that’s what it took. Just sat there for a couple of hours,” Biggers said.

He said he hopes health departments get more resources, which could help fellow seniors in more ways than one.

“They will feel more comfortable if they’re just getting responses and getting some feedback,” Biggers said.

The budget changes will now head to the state Senate, where state senators can change or even add more support for public health.

Some people in public health are hopeful for more funding when federal funds run out, especially if that future money promised from Washington, D.C., ends up being less than expected.

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