Living in Suspense

We’ve all watched apocalypse movies — even ones about pandemics. And even though experts warned us we were due for a pandemic, we never expected it to hit in 2020. We feel fear, and when we are fearful we want information. My role as a State Senator gives me access to information from the Governor’s office which I can share with you. I can also share your ideas and concerns back to the Governor’s office staff.

I have been relying daily on the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which is making their publication available free of charge during this crisis. Also, the Georgia Department of Public Health website is helpful.

Non-Essential Businesses Suspended (Stay-at-Home Orders)

During my first week after the legislature was suspended, I spent hours on the phone talking with local elected officials, who were wondering if they should close down areas where people congregate to promote social distancing, or if the Governor was going to use his powers to shut Georgia down. Governor Kemp has a strong local-governance ideology, so I encouraged local governments to move forward quickly, and they did. These decisions made by mayors, council members, county chairs and county commissioners were excruciatingly painful. Because of their leadership, the greater Atlanta metro area has some strong Stay-at-Home Orders. But it’s a confusing patchwork of ordinances, and there are still plenty of people who are not taking it seriously. The strong voice of our Governor ordering people to stay home is needed to save lives.

How Are the Atlanta Hospitals Doing?

Over 600 COVID19 patients have already been hospitalized across the state. As these numbers increase, many are wondering how our hospitals are faring. According to an email I got from Grady, patient volume is still within the normal range, but the acuity of cases is higher than usual. Since Grady consistently operates at or near capacity, Grady is working with state leaders to identify additional hospital bed capacity.

Grady is still in need of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and COVID19 tests. A partnership of Grady procurement, the Dept. of Community Affairs, and the Grady Foundation is working on this. They accept donations and welcome referrals.

Grady is now doing all its own testing. Due to scarcity of tests, testing is limited to patients and frontline health workers.

Grady leaders continue to serve on the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force and work with Mayor Bottoms and her team to develop solutions for the homeless affected by the virus.

Since the beginning of this crisis, Grady has treated over 200 “People Under Investigation” (PUIs) for COVID19. Of these, 51 have tested positive as of March 27th and 27 remain admitted at Grady.

Grady is grateful for donations, but is especially appreciative of those who are staying home, as this slows the spread of the virus and gives hospitals the time to prepare without being overwhelmed. Grady strongly encourages local jurisdictions to enact these policies if they have not already.

I am beginning to get updates from the Georgia Hospital Association and will share as I get more information.

The Conference Call with the Governor’s Office

The Governor has conducted two conference calls with the legislature and has made his staff available to House & Senate members.

Sixteen questions were submitted by the House and Senate caucuses ahead of the call. Unfortunately, we struggled with insufficient technology as over 250 people logged on, triggering a loud “beep” with every new caller. And many forgot to mute their phones. It was sometimes hard to hear but here’s what I have to share:

Unemployment Claims & Small Business Help: Unemployment claims have doubled and the fund is still robust at this point. The Governor signed a declaration allowing for the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide low-interest loans to employers. The House & Senate will have a conference call with the Dept. of Labor next week for more updates.

Shelter-in-Place: The Governor’s office is still saying that there are 50 counties with no cases, so Gov. Kemp does not want to declare a Shelter-in-Place that impacts the entire state.

State Revenue Impact/Budget: A sub-committee of the Coronavirus Taskforce has been established to address the state budget. It will be chaired by the State Fiscal Economist. The House & Senate Appropriations Chairs are being continually briefed of the situation, and the Legislature will be involved in budget adjustments. The congressional stimulus package will provide funds to help the states. The state income tax deadline has been postponed, which will also impact the budget.

Essential Businesses/Services: The State has no list. Each locality is coming up with their own list.

Shelter-in-Place for the Medically Fragile: Essential activities for this population include going out for medical care, getting food and travelling back and forth to family.

SNAP (food stamps): P-SNAP has been established. P stands for Pandemic and there is an increase of $60 million. Each family will receive maximum benefits for a total of $167 in additional benefits thru April. Applications can be taken via telephone. Renewals don’t have to be reviewed. Work requirements will be waived through May. Georgia has applied to allow SNAP to be used for hot food too. On-line and telephone applications are available for Medicaid too. SNAP applications have doubled. Some days there are 9000 applications (prior totals were 9000 per week).

Child Welfare: The state is considering participation in P-EBT, which would provide supplemental benefits for families whose children are out of school, and who qualify for free/reduced lunch. Child abuse reporting has dropped by 50% because educators, coaches, etc. aren’t calling. The public should be on the watch for children at risk in neighborhoods. Caseworkers are still doing some visitation, and are also trying to use Skype and FaceTime.

Refunds for College Students: Schools have all finalized refund plans. They should be rolled out next week.

Testing/Lab Turnaround Time: State Labs are turning tests around in 1 – 2 days. Private Labs are lagging, running 7 – 8 days. Two companies, Quest and LabCore, probably took on too much. They are processing for other states too. Georgia is developing additional partnerships, particularly with Universities. By the end of next week, speed will be really ramped up. The intent is to not have to send anything through outside labs. No information was given about testing supply or purchasing, even though this question was asked. Instead, answers were given about PPE.

Physicians: Primary Care physicians can refer to 25 drive-thru testing sites located throughout the state (the locations of these sites are kept private). All physicians were sent a letter from Public Health. Doctors don’t have to see a patient in person. Patients are given a voucher number.

Care for the Indigent: Indigent care is being provided by Federally Qualified Community Health Centers where they are available. These clinics received a grant to expand COVID services.

WIC: Georgia has sought a USGA waiver so recipients don’t have to show up in person to apply.

Police/First Responders: 911 operators are asking callers if there are COVID symptoms so responders know before they show up. GEMA is vetting PPE (protective gear masks, gloves etc.) requests and filling them for first responders. They have gotten LOTS of supplies in to help.

Prisons: A strict visitation process has been in place for a couple weeks. Staff is screened when they enter. If cases are found, the sick and those who have been exposed are isolated. This protocol has been implemented at Lee State Prison, where cases of COVID19 have been diagnosed.

Hospital Space: Previously closed hospitals are being re-opened. Open space is being assessed for building additional hospitals. Modular units and trailers are in the works. They are opening additional bed space in Albany. Mapping, planning & modeling tools along with death and bed utilization numbers are being analyzed to predict the surge. Conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers is ongoing. No options are off the table at this time.

Number of ER Beds: We have just over 3000 in the state. Don’t know how many of these are used regularly.

Number of Ventilators: The state has 2400 probably. 1200 more have been ordered.They have 80 extra to push out. 30 – 50 of those have already been pushed out. Soon all those will have been pushed out.

Grocery Stores: No problem with supply chain. Surge buying will self correct.

Vendors (Labs, Testing, PPE, Ventilators): GEMA (Georgia emergency management) said they are being overwhelmed with vendors who want to help with supplies. Legislators were asked to help pre-screen potential vendors. For instance, the state cannot provide money upfront. They need people with current stock and delivery dates. They are still looking for ventilator vendors.  Everyone is pulling from China and there’s lots of price variation. No information was shared about whether or not Georgia would purchase more COVID19 test kits.

A Suspension of Disbelief

At this point, what is my biggest concern? Testing. The question I submitted to my Caucus was: Will Georgia spend resources to purchase additional test kits so we can conduct more thorough testing? Though there was a great deal of discussion about protective gear and speeding up lab tests, my question was never directly answered. The number of COVID cases reported by the news media every day does not reflect how many people are actually sick, but rather how many people were able to get tested. We’re still told we don’t need to lock Georgia down, as over half of the country has done, because we have no cases diagnosed in 50 counties. But do we? How would we know?

We Are Suspended

How we work, live and play has changed abruptly. For many of us, that means we’re at home utilizing technology to work and stay in touch with friends and family. Our lives as usual have been suspended but our purpose has not. We are stopping the spread of the virus.

Others deemed essential are still out working and cannot stop. They are our healthcare professionals, our childcare and grocery store workers, our food preparers, and all the others we call on when in need. They carry the weight that holds us all.

We need each other.