Elections & COVID-19: A Virtual Town Hall

On Tuesday April 28, at 6pm, please join me, State Representative Beth Moore, and Gwinnett County Commissioner Ben Ku, for a public online program entitled “Elections & COVID-19: A Gwinnett Virtual Town Hall.”

Coronavirus has changed a lot of things, including the ways we safely and securely conduct our elections. We’ll  provide you with important updates and recommendations for best practices in the 2020 election cycle. This is a non-partisan event, and all district residents are invited to watch and submit questions.

You can tune in one of two ways:
(1) Watch the Facebook Live broadcast from my Facebook page; or
(2) Listen in by calling (301) 715-8592 and entering Meeting ID 926 3171 1369.

You can submit questions in advance by clicking on this Google Form link.

We’ve Only Just Begun

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
–Winston Churchill

The Governor’s About-Face

Almost two weeks ago, a beleaguered Governor Kemp, just back from visiting tornado-ravaged north Georgia, stood in front of the press to address Georgia’s response to the COVID pandemic. He was asked when he thought the economy could open back up. With an overwhelmed expression he said, “On the back side of this we can focus on opening up, but not yet.”

Seven days later, standing in front of the same press, he announced the reopening of businesses including gyms, salons, dine-in restaurants, tattoo parlors, and massage spas — all before the end of his April 30th Shelter-in-Place and May 13th Declaration of Emergency Orders.

Why this About-Face? Was it his phone call with Vice President Mike Pence? Was it his conference call with other southern, Republican governors? Was it the threat of a “Reopen GA Protest” at Georgia’s Capitol? Or was he following his heart and thinking this is the right thing to do?

During times of crisis we need the steady hand of reliable leaders. Instead, Gov. Kemp’s About-Face leaves us feeling like we don’t know what’s around the corner. His premature decision to say “yes” to non-essential massages, tattoos and haircuts, while still telling most of us to stay home except for necessities, makes no sense and does not inspire the kind of trust we need in a leader right now.

Orders for Re-Opening

This week the Whitehouse released “Opening Up America Again,” a very reasonable roadmap for balancing the opening of the economy and the health of Americans, as we wait for a treatment or vaccine to be developed. Even before activating the first of three phases, the report advises certain “gateway” criteria including 14-day declines in flu-like and COVID-19 symptoms and cases, adequate hospital beds, as well as PPE and testing for health workers. Has Georgia met these? No. This question was asked during this week’s legislative conference call with the Governor’s office:

What numbers changed to support the re-opening of Georgia businesses that was announced on Monday? The President’s reopening guidelines include a 14-day drop in cases before re-opening. What is the reasoning in re-opening before this has taken place?

Answer: “As the Governor said in his press conference on Monday, the state is on its way to meeting the gating criteria into Phase 1 of the “Opening up America” plan. We are beginning to see a plateau and slight decline in new case notifications and a decline in total death notifications.

“On its way” doesn’t cut it. Georgia does not meet the guidelines. And don’t be surprised if you see published graphs of declining cases to justify the Governor’s decision. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, new COVID-19 cases are now being recorded differently — instead of recording a new case when a test result comes back positive, the case is being recorded according to the date symptoms first appeared. This new way of documenting cases will result in a well-timed and misleading, temporary drop in case numbers. Many of us are relying on data to evaluate potential risks in venturing out — almost like looking at the weather forecast when planning trips. These changes in the numbers leave us feeling vulnerable and confused.

A Salute to Georgia’s Hospitals

Just a few weeks ago, we feared the United States would be “the next Italy” — that people would die because of a shortage of ventilators, and that a medical triage process would choose who lives and who dies. This did not happen in Georgia, due to the hard work of Georgia’s hospitals. Right now, possibly at the peak of our first COVID wave, we have over 900 available ICU units across Georgia. The cancellation of regularly scheduled procedures provided the necessary personnel, equipment and physical space so in-patient beds could be converted to ICU beds. Private healthcare systems worked cooperatively across healthcare systems to share resources, and a system of counting ER, ICU and in-patient beds was developed so the state could plan for the coming surge of patients. It all worked because of the sacrifices of so many people, from doctors who closed their businesses, to the healthcare workers who risked their own health to take care of others, to those of us who were staying home to slow down the spread, allowing our healthcare system the breathing room it needed. These numbers show that as long as there is not a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, hospitals can begin meeting pent up demand for elective procedures and surgeries. “Elective” in some cases means cancer treatments and people who are in disabling pain needing surgery.

April 24 Capacity In Use Available
ICU Beds 3,246 2,329 917
ER Beds 3,430 843 2,587
General Beds 14,727 9,169 5,558

source- Georgia Hospital Association

A Salute to Georgia’s National Guard

Forty percent of Georgia’s COVID-19 deaths are residents of long term care facilities. Over the course of the last three weeks, almost 3,000 soldiers, airmen, and State Defense Force personnel  have been deployed across Georgia to assist in the COVID-19 response. Most of these soldiers make up Infection Control Teams, who have visited 80% of the hundreds of nursing homes and long term care facilities in Georgia, doing deep cleaning, and training local staff on proper disinfection and infection control. General Tom Carden says that Georgia’s use of the National Guard in addressing the state’s COVID crisis is a model now being replicated in other states. Georgia’s National Guard is also assisting hospitals, food banks, school lunch delivery programs, and public health departments.

Does Georgia’s Testing Pass the Test?

Several constituents have been telling me from the beginning that it’s all about testing. Yet Georgia has been slow to get adequate testing rolled out. We’ve been told repetitively that testing will be “ramping” up, yet we continue to test less than 1% of Georgia’s population. In the last few weeks, we’ve slowly climbed from 45th to 43rd in the nation for people tested, as our daily testing numbers increased from around 3,000 to almost 7,000. Questions about testing came up in this week’s Governor’s conference call:

Will the testing the state is doing have both antibody testing and positive/negative test results? More information that we could share with constituents on this topic would be helpful.

Dr. Toomey responded: Initially, the tests that the state is administering are live virus tests run through PCR machines (positive/negative test). At this time, DPH is not administering antibody tests. This test shows exposure to COVID19 and may paint a better picture of the breadth of the virus at a time when access to adequate testing was limited. However, at this time we don’t know if the presence of antibodies necessarily shows immunity. The science isn’t there yet, so we wouldn’t rely on the presence of antibodies as firm evidence that a person is no longer at risk of being infected with COVID.

Dr. Toomey also referred to the CDC’s recent statement regarding the use of antibody testing: “The test is not currently designed to test individuals who want to know if they have been previously infected with COVID-19.”  (FDA letter to healthcare providers, and CDC Serology Testing)

During Monday’s press conference, Gen. Tom Carden was asked about the goals of Georgia’s testing program.

Gen. Carden responded: If you look at the rate of acceleration of our testing program during the last week (how much it has “ramped up”), Georgia is 28th out of 54 states and territories.  We are only limited by the supply of test kits and lab capacity. Our goal is to have enough testing to be able to make data driven decisions. We’re going to test what we can source for. “Trying to test almost 11 million people in the state of Georgia is about like trying to boil the ocean.”

When the press asked about measurable goals, Carden continuedThe top two testing states in the country, Rhode Island and NY, have both been able to test a little over 3% of their populations. Georgia is at 0.71%. I’d love to say Georgia could test 10%, but that’s not realistic. “My goal is to drive it until the system breaks.” 

Wherever the Virus Goes, We Go

Dr. Kathleen Toomey has said repetitively that contact tracing is how we are going to keep this virus under control. Yet she admits that the logistics of setting up a tracing system for a disease that is spreading so quickly through the population is not something that anyone in our current public health system has experience with. One constituent told me recently that he was exposed to the virus in early March through the wife of one of the early COVID patients. He was never contacted by public health, even though a contact tracing program was supposedly up and running.

What is the state’s plan for getting contact tracing up and running?

Here is Toomey’s response: The DPH is finalizing its plans for substantially increasing their capacity for contact tracing by significantly increasing staffing through partnerships with our higher education institutions and leveraging technology through a partnership with Google – more details will be shared in the coming days. It will take a village. Every public health epidemiology team will serve as incident commanders. We will have videos to train staff in the districts, to train volunteers. Other states built teams using Master of Public Health students, and medical students who are not currently in classes. When a person is newly infected, we will reach out, talk to them, find out with whom they were in contact and where did they go? We will address the exposures. In the past, we have done this manually with staff. Now with the wonder of Google technology, a computer based app is being finalized. It will be customized to our own needs. This is the priority in months ahead. This is how we keep spread from occurring even as we open up the economy. 

Four Week Chunks

So if we are just now approaching the end of the beginning, what’s next? I think we continue to protect ourselves and our healthcare system while we evaluate the impact of the Governor’s decisions the best we can. I’m carefully tracking hospitalization data because I feel it’s a pretty good measure of virus activity, and it’s not easy to manipulate. This data indicates we may have reached a plateau, and conference calls with major hospital systems support this data. For the most part, hospitals are reporting that they are discharging the same number of people they admit each day.

I told my kids, who are wondering if they will have in-person college classes in the fall or not, “you need to plan, then make contingency plans.” My friend Michael Murphy-McCarthy said, “I do well with four-week chunks.” Let’s see where we are in a few weeks, then we’ll ask “what’s next?” once again. In the meantime, check on your neighbors, donate to your local food bank if you can, and do whatever makes you feel good, within limits, of course!

Conflicting Messages

Last week we were doing just fine focusing on preparations for Georgia’s COVID-19 peak. As Governor Kemp said, “On the back side of this we can focus on opening back up, but not yet.” Then, with the President’s release of his “Opening Up America Again” guidelines, the news cycle did a cartwheel, leading many Americans to believe it is now okay to go back to “normal.” After all, Easter Sunday has come and gone.

This week’s conference call with the Governor added to the confusion. Mark Hamilton, the Governor’s Director of External Affairs, made it crystal clear — Georgia IS open to business. And two special guests from the Department of Economic Development, Commissioner Pat Wilson and COO Bert Brantley, echoed his message, “Georgia has not done a shut-down. This keeps us in line with the President. Our economy has continued to move.”

But before we panic too much about unleashing a pent-up virus, understand that much of this message was likely aimed at preventing a Michigan style “Freedom” protest on the steps of the Georgia Capitol. Obviously, it IS important to think about how we are going to open back up the economy. But as Governor Kemp said, “We must do this nimbly.”

Be Prepared

The lead group for restoring Georgia’s economy is the Economic Impact Committee of the Coronavirus Task Force. In addition, the Governor has spoken with the Lt. Governor and the Speaker about what comes next. And, there was a Governor’s conference call this week with the President about his guidelines. But for now, Governor Kemp’s message is, “Our focus is on the crisis at hand — PPE, support, staff, equipment, and flattening the spread of new cases.”

COO Brantley told us that many Georgia manufacturers whose markets have shut down are shifting to produce the things we need, such as personal protective equipment (PPE).  Many of our manufacturers will be ready to provide these items for the long-term.

The Economic Suffering is Real

Unfortunately, the stimulus package passed by Congress is struggling to get real cash to people in a timely way. The first round of stimulus checks are beginning to arrive, but employees laid off in mid-March will soon be faced with a second month’s rent. Georgia has not enacted any kind of state-wide stay of evictions or foreclosures, and Small Business Administration loans ran out of money this week, leaving many businesses high and dry. Georgia’s unemployment system is completely overwhelmed. If you are able, local food banks really need your help. Here’s a great database for looking up food banks in your neighborhood. Also, call Governor Kemp’s office at 404-656-1776 and ask him to enact a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

What About Testing?

Epidemiologists have made it clear. Georgia’s economy can only recover if it is accompanied by a massive expansion of testingDr. Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner of the Department of Public Health, answered legislator’s questions about testing and contact tracing.

Why is Georgia so far behind other states on testing and how can we catch up?

When we first started testing, there was only one kind of test, provided through the CDC, and two batches of those tests were defective. Although the CDC is located in Georgia, we were not chosen as a priority state. Our initial challenges were not unlike other states in terms of test and swab availability. But we have overcome these challenges.

Now we have 39 test sites and are processing thousands of tests a day, including a new lab in Sandy Springs that will provide 2100 tests a day. Shipments have gone out to the health districts. This week is an important surge week so we have set up additional sites M – F and some weekends. The National Guard is helping. We think we will be able to test many more people with our expanded criteria, including anyone who has symptoms, even the loss of smell/taste — any age — young, infants, and elderly. Also many asymptomatic people in nursing homes will be tested.

Can you update us on the status of our contact tracing ability? How are we doing contact tracing for people who were not “sick enough” to be tested?

Contact tracing becomes even more critical as conversations about “re-opening” the economy continue to occur at the national level. Early on when there were only a few cases, we did contact tracing aggressively. Now with thousands of cases we can’t do it with that intensity, although we are still doing it in nursing homes or areas with close contact. DPH is working to ramp up the system’s capability to scale-up contact tracing. We are developing a plan in partnership with Google (cell phone monitoring for possible exposures) and perhaps a University partner. Also, we’re looking at putting together teams like other states (CA, MA) using student volunteers, and people in the community to help with contact tracing.

Can you address the disparities in the information being reported from nursing home facilities and long-term care facilities with respect to reported positive cases and deaths, and the data reported to the Dept. of Public Health?

For nursing homes and Long Term Care (LTC) facilities, there is a data lag time. For example rapid tests were done but not reported back until weeks later. We are telling facilities to be more prompt. In the end, we get the same numbers but it takes longer than it seems it should. Right now we are posting these numbers weekly, but in the next 48 hours you’ll begin to see this data reported daily. Lastly, we must have good infection control in LTC facilities. Infection control is what’s going to stop the LTC outbreaks.

Is this Picture too Rosy?

The expansion of test sites and who can be tested all sounds great, but this week, the number of diagnostic tests processed in Georgia actually fell significantly. And I have heard reports of tests being rationed to five tests a day by long term care facilities. The kind of test expansion experts are saying we need to open up the economy is in the hundreds of thousands range — not the two to five thousand we have been seeing in Georgia. Also, contact tracing will require a couple thousand workers, or a budget of around $50 million. Is Georgia up to this? Is any state up to this?

Here’s the best analysis I’ve heard on what is wrong. All of the tests are privately owned, and instead of FEMA coming in and buying all the tests for the county and sending them out as needed, all 50 states and the federal government are competing for the same tests. So these private businesses, who have a very finite capacity to produce tests, are making promises to all 50 states that they can’t keep. The private companies then use the increased demand to make states bid against each other, driving up the price for each state. So the highest bidder gets the tests — which is probably not Georgia.

Other Public Health Research

While we focus on hospital bed availability, PPE and diagnostic testing, scientists around the country are working on treatment, vaccines and large scale research. In other late-breaking news, Dr. Toomey mentioned Georgia is developing a partnership with Universities and the NIH to do serological testing to pick up on how many cases have been occurring throughout Georgia’s population. CDC is also studying hospitalized patients and the role of underlying conditions. These will be published in the next 1 – 2 weeks. Floyd Medical Center is utilizing plasma with antibody treatments and seeing good outcomes.

How Many ICU Beds are Available?

While ICU utilization is up by 98 beds since Tuesday 4/14, more ICU beds have come on-line, so we have a net positive of 58 ICU beds! Plus the 200 general bed facility at the World Congress Center is now open. Last week models predicted Georgia’s peak will be May 1st, but the IHME model is now saying we may have passed our peak. It’s hard to tell what will actually happen. As General Carden said, “The World Congress Center is our relief valve … pray we don’t need it, but it will be there.”

April 18 Capacity In Use Available
ICU Beds 3,054 2,142 912
ER Beds 3,446 798 2,648
General Beds 14,517 8,616 5,901

 

Judy Fitzgerald, Commissioner, Dept. of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD)

State Hospitals: All visitation at State Hospitals has been suspended.

There have been significant workforce impacts at Georgia Regional Hospital (Atlanta) and Central State Hospital (Milledgeville). The Georgia National Guard has done decontamination, and batch testing of people and staff has been conducted at these facilities. There have been two staff deaths in Milledgeville (died at the local acute care hospital) and 20 plus positive cases. Confirmed cases are in quarantine units at both these hospitals. Additional PPE has been delivered to Central State in Milledgeville. Possible COVID positive people at the Savannah and Columbus facilities have been isolated.

Behavioral Health: A COVID-19 Emotional Support Line has been established. 866-399-8938. This statewide line provides free and confidential assistance to callers needing support and behavioral health resource information during the COVID crisis.

In addition, the Dept. of Behavior Health & Development Disabilities has implemented Wellness, Self-Care Tips and Support for Health Care and Emergency Response Workers. Requests have been made to extend this service to other state employees as well.

Developmental Disabilities: The Dept (DBHDD) has implemented increased communication channels to respond to individual, family and stakeholder questions and concerns. In addition, DBHDD has worked with the Dept. of Community Health to develop Appendix K (emergency preparedness and response) for needed changes to NOW/COMP waivers. Educational webinars have been prepared for Stakeholders, Providers and families.

Homer Bryson, Director of Georgia Emergency Management

In rural Georgia, private practitioners are the first line of defense against COVID-19. Many offices have been using the same PPE for 3 – 4 weeks. How can we help these private practices purchase PPE?

First priority must go to acute care hospitals, long term care facilities and first responders. The state has ordered several million pieces of PPE that will be sent to the GEMA/DPH warehouse and sent out to areas of greatest need. We also understand that the PPE supply chains internationally are slowly opening back up, and private practices and other facilities are encouraged to reach out to their existing suppliers initially to acquire PPE.

Miscellaneous Questions & Answers

The 2021 Budget. What action is being taken by the Executive branch in terms of plan/changes? Are the House & Senate budget offices being engaged to prepare for what will need to be done?

OPB Director Kelly Farr and the Governor’s Senior staff are in constant contact with House & Senate Appropriations. Actual revenue reports are reported with a lag so we are still reviewing what actual numbers will look like. We have a one-hour call today.

Should we just change the revenue estimate now? 

The impact on the economy is being assessed. We still just don’t know. The state is evaluating all options and keeping all courses of action open.

According to an April 10 CNN Report, the largest known concentration of CV cases outside of hospitals is in the nation’s prisons. What are the conditions of Georgia correctional facilities and what is being done to protect them?  Are correctional officers being tested? 

The Dept. of Corrections publishes a daily report at http://www.gdc.ga.gov/content/cases  The Georgia National Guard has been involved in training as well as sanitizing for both Corrections and the Dept. of Juvenile Justice. There have been no positive cases for any youth within the DJJ, though there have been a few staff positive.

Will Georgia’s public secondary schools and University System of Georgia schools move to a pass/fail grading system rather than letter grades or allow students to choose which they prefer?

This is a decision for the Board of Regents.

School systems are homeschooling students with the assistance of the internet. Can the state provide assistance to systems or parents to obtain internet access where it is unavailable?

Two weeks ago the Governor and the Department of Community Affairs put out a release connecting Georgians who do not have internet access to resources where they can receive internet access. http://broadband.georgia.gov/georgia-internet-access-covid-19-update

When do you think enough masks will be available for grocery store employees and even for the general public to order and receive? Can the Governor mandate food service workers to wear masks? If they are available?

The Governor did not make it mandatory, but there is guidance from the Federal Government. The global supply chain for PPE is slowly starting to re-open.

We’re in a Liminal Space Now

We’re prepared for the surge, but we’re not quite sure when we will reach it, or if we already have. We want to get to the other side, but we’re not sure what life will look like when we do. Some who have lost loved ones will go on with life but feel a void. We make plans, and then we make contingency plans. That’s our new normal.

As we ponder moving past our first COVID-19 milestone, let us remember, in this single blossom, the many recently departed souls who have left this world as we know it. (photo credit: Marc Merlin)

Reaching the Peak

There’s so much stress in the world right now. My kids are stressed; my family and my friends are stressed. We’re all hurting and worried.

Georgia Hospitals are Climbing Mountains

Last week I had the chance to hear from leaders of WellStar, one of the largest healthcare systems in Georgia. Here’s what they, and other state leaders, had to say.

Expanding Capacity: Expansion of ICU beds by converting and upgrading other units has been the hospital system’s focus. The creation of a non-ICU hospital at the Georgia World Congress Center helps make this possible. Redeployment of doctors and staff freed up from their usual jobs is helping to staff ICU rooms. There are contingency plans to double ventilator capacity — shifting equipment around to different hospitals, purchasing vents, and converting anesthesia equipment. Also, since COVID is hard on kidneys, more CRRT machines have been ordered (continuous renal replacement therapy).

How Staying at Home has Helped: Every single hospital administrator on the conference call said having people stay at home has helped. They sent you their thanks, and said keep it up! Dr. Carlos del Rio, chair of the Hubert Department of Global Health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, has the data to back this up. In the AJC, he states, “Instead of seeing one day 10 patients, and the next day 20, and the next day 40, and the next day 80, we are seeing one day 10, the next 12, and the next 14, and the next day 16. That makes a huge difference.”

Amazing things: Hospitals, including Grady, are reporting that access to PPE (personal protection equipment) is better now for healthcare workers. This has helped to achieve lower virus transmission rates among healthcare workers. Since many healthcare workers work 7am – 7pm they can’t get to the grocery stores. So, hospitals have created mini-convenience stores within the hospitals for healthcare workers, stocked with things like PBJs, paper towels and, of course, toilet paper! They have a constant supply of donated meals. They have organized small groups to care for other people’s children. Last but not least, healthcare workers are uplifted by the success stories of COVID survivors, and really appreciate all the thank you notes from family members.

Current Bed Availability: Brand New Data!

Capacity

In Use

Available

ER Beds

3.429

839

2,592

ICU Beds

2,898

2,044

854

General Beds

14,242

8,670

5,575

“We are constantly comparing hospital capacity with surge numbers. Looking at models is good guidance but not foolproof. When it comes to looking at the median numbers, we are in good shape by more than 1000 beds. But if you look at the high numbers, we are not in good shape. The World Congress Center is our relief valve should we run north of our surge capacity. Pray we don’t need it. But it will be there.” 
–Major General Tom Carden, Adjutant General, Georgia Department of Defense

Testing: According to Dr. Kathleen Toomey, testing is still inadequate, and the status quo is not acceptable. We are 45th out of the 50 states in terms of numbers tested. Though many hospitals report they are beginning to do their own testing, Dr. Toomey says don’t show up at an ER for a test — call your health department instead. “We made it too hard to get tested because it required a referral from a physician. That was too hard a barrier. Now you can call your health department directly.” There are 34 testing sites in the state, including the new GA Tech site. In addition, there is a new lab in Sandy Springs, and Georgia Universities are processing 1000 tests a day. Expansion of testing criteria is beginning to open up. Dr. Toomey says that asymptomatic people who have had direct contact with a COVID positive person can now get tested.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

The following are answers to questions submitted by legislators and answered by the Governor during the April 8th conference call:

After the “Peak” how will opening the economy back up be approached? Is diagnostic testing being expanded? Will an antibody test be used? How available is antibody testing? 1) IHME now estimates the peak in Georgia to occur on or around May 1st, when current projections show the state will have a deficit of 218 ICU beds. More capacity is coming on-line. 2) Two companies have released rapid tests nationally. Hospitals across the state that have partnerships with these companies now have machines and are actively testing. 3) IgG antibody testing is currently entering the market and once available will be deployed by the State.4) Antibody response indicates exposure, but does not imply immunity. There are other factors of immunity including cellular immunity and no one knows about immunity to SARSCoV-2, yet.

What Metrics will be used to trigger reopening the economy? Dr. Toomey, Commissioner of Public Health, says we will look at the numbers. “Right now we continue to see widespread community transmission. It is still too early to see the impact of the Governor’s Stay at Home Order — this takes several weeks. Hopefully we will see a flattening of the curve. If we open everything up too soon we will get a rebound with a second peak — we need to keep outbreaks from occurring even after we open things back up.”

A Roof over One’s Head

Will there be a statewide freeze on evictions and foreclosures during the Emergency? No. No specific action.

What is being done to support unsheltered homeless people? We have established the Displaced Individuals Sub-Committee, which is chaired by Mayor Bottoms. Look to her and her sub-committee. We are now working with a local hotel which will open today for 200 people who test positive but require no hospitalization. This will be monitored by public health.

Long Term Care (LTC) Facilities:  There are currently 80 LTC facilities statewide with positive COVID cases. Every LTC facility is a high risk place. Dr. Toomey stated the need to get ahead of the issue and work with ALL facilities, not just those reporting a positive case. Infection control work should be part of routine care. Training on infection control should be a priority, not just testing and reporting. Sixty Georgia National Guard Infection Control Teams have sanitized 249 facilities.

Miscellaneous Questions from Legislators:

Funeral Home viewings continue to occur. Will the Governor issue additional Orders to limit these to 10 people or immediate family? The Governor’s Order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people if the 6-ft social distancing cannot be achieved.

Will the Governor continue to allow beaches and State Parks to be open? Georgians are obeying the Order and the Order is being enforced. The closing of State Parks and beaches is not necessary. St. Simon’s last weekend had only just over 100 people on the entire beach. That’s some of the best social distancing in the state. Neighborhood block parties are a bigger problem.

What will the budget impact be? How will Federal funds help? Tax revenues were actually up for March, but we expect the rest of the months in the 2019/20 fiscal year to be down. We have established a Sub-Committee on Economic Impact, chaired by the State Economist. It is premature yet to guess. We are keeping key people updated.

Will there be direction from the Board of Education to local school systems regarding virtual learning, at-home work for students and food distribution? Superintendent Woods will partner with the Governor’s office to launch working groups and guidelines for best practices for these areas plus facilities, equipment, mental health and professional learning.

Why is DPH keeping vital information from local elected officials to include the disposition of infected persons within their community (i.e., whether the cases are located in nursing homes/prisons and/or are hospitalized)? This is inaccurate – DPH is reporting long-term care facilities with positive cases and total hospitalizations – and the Department of Corrections is putting out information regularly on confirmed cases in their facilities. As we discussed yesterday, the DPH data is the “final authority” so there may be a lag in what you read on a press release, social media, or a post from a hospital – before DPH has the ability to confirm the data as valid.

Updates from Homer Bryson, Director, GEMA

Are first responders getting the supplies they need? Yes, we are in much better shape now than we were last week. The warehouse operation is impressive. We have streamlined the process to match the large scale needed. We order one day, pull the next, then ship the third day. Hospitals, nursing homes and first responders order every other day. Sunday is inventory day, when we assess where we are. We continue to deliver urgent orders every day when we get reports of shortages. We have shipped out 86 ventilators, 871,000 N95 masks, 1.2 million surgical masks, 201,000 face shields, and 3 million gloves.

Updates from General Tom Carden, Georgia National Guard:

The Georgia National Guard has deployed 2000 soldiers and personnel.

Infection Control Teams: The GA National Guard now has 60 active Infection Control Teams (The first team was organized and put to work on March 31st). These teams are made up of 913 personnel. They have cleaned 249 Long Term Care facilities.

Medical Support Teams: The Georgia National Guard now has 17 active  Medical Support Teams (The first team was deployed to Grady on March 25th). 200 personnel are deployed to 17 hospitals. These teams are made up of doctors, PAs and nurses, doing medical care and administrative support.

Hospital Entry Control Teams: 72 GA National Guard members are at hospitals doing patient screening. This frees up healthcare workers to tend to other needs.

Food Bank Support: GA National Guard has 180 personnel assigned to nine food banks.

Public Health: GA National Guard is assisting Public Health as drivers and couriers.

Updates from Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner of Public Health

Demographics on Public Health Website: Public Health is continuing to collect data that is not posted on the website because with some of the data there are so many variables that are still missing. For example, providers doing lab tests do not always provide all the demographic information. Public Health is working proactively to correct this. For right now, 65% of positive test results lack race/ethnicity data. This is a problem because we know that the cases in Albany are disproportionately affecting African Americans.

Anti-Malarials. The National Stockpile is providing anti-malarials to the states. The window for who gets this drug, and when, is very narrow. Dr. Toomey expressed grave concerns about how physicians are prescribing these drugs across the state, and how this is leaving people without their medication who continually need this drug to live. She has sent out a letter to doctors.

The Bird’s Eye View

 “This virus will change how we function now and in the future. We are a culture that embraces and shakes hands. This will change. Things that were routine will need to be modified because of the virus and how it transmits so easily. We will look for trends, but until we see that, I cannot give a prediction as to a date or how that decision (to open the economy back up) will be made. First we must see what community spread looks like and how our hospitals are doing.
–Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Commissioner, Dept. of Public Health

Governor Kemp, in his 4/13 press conference said, “I don’t want to speculate yet. The peak day keeps moving. … We are seeing some good signs. Keep hunkering down. Keep doing what you are doing. … We must be very nimble in dealing with what comes after … On the back side of this, we can focus on opening up but not yet.

Sally at Red River Gorge

Sally climbing sandstone cliffs in Red River Gorge, Kentucky one year ago this April.
Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.

Sunny Days Cast Shadows

Another week has passed as we anticipate “the surge.” The words of Nathaniel Hawthorne seem written for our time: “Time flows over us, but leaves its shadow behind.

As cities and counties across Georgia took the lead to enact their own Stay-at-Home ordinances, pressure mounted on Governor Kemp to do what the majority of Governor’s across the nation had already done — order people to stay home to slow the spread of the virus.

Last weekend, prior to the Governor’s Order, I shared photos with the Governor’s office of large raft-up boat parties on Lake Sinclair, pleading with him to order a shelter-in-place. My Facebook post with these pictures had gone viral and clearly people were alarmed by the callousness of the boaters.  By the end of the weekend, the Governor signed an Order requiring the Department of Natural Resources to break up large gatherings on and around lakes throughout the state.

After issuing his Stay-at-Home Order, I received calls from a number of city leaders in the district. Governor Kemp’s Order nullified their more strict ordinances, leaving them confused about how the Order affected their communities, and whether their local police had the authority to enforce the new order.

Again, I communicated these concerns with the Governor’s office, and again, the Governor released another “clarifying” Order.

Beyond the Shadow of a Doubt: After clarifying his intent, there is no doubt that reopening beaches, which had been ordered closed by local governments, was a purposeful preemption of local control. Churches, golf courses, and businesses (specifically including gun stores), remain open as long as they follow certain CDC guidelines, including keeping six feet of distance between people. Businesses such as  gyms, salons, entertainment venues, and bars/nightclubs were ordered closed. Restaurants are limited to carry-out only. Citizens must stay in their homes except for essential activities such as grocery shopping, medical care, exercise, and taking care of family members.

Dark Before the Dawn

Is Georgia ready for the “surge”? The US national average for hospital beds per capita (per 1000) is 2.8. Georgia is below the national average at 2.5.  Contrast this to Japan at 13.1; Germany 8.0; and Italy 3.2.

Most of us want to know if Georgia has enough ventilators and hospital beds to meet the need. I have been trying to get this data, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. According to the COVID Tracking Project, only 15 states are collecting data specific to ICU admissions and of those, only seven are tracking ventilator use. Rough averages of this data indicate that 32% of all hospital admissions require intensive care, and 28% require ventilators. To date in Georgia, 1332 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized.

The following is information obtained from a conference call with the Georgia Hospital Association:

Available Bed Space: Georgia has 26,578 hospital beds. 2200 of those are ICU beds (8%). Certificate of Need (CON) has been waived so that other types of beds can be used for ICU.

New Bed Space: More bed space will be needed as the surge approaches. The State is working with the Georgia Hospital Association to identify hospitals that have extra, old, or empty space that can be brought on-line ASAP.  Opening up this space is VERY costly — the state has allocated 72 million dollars to expand space for 300 extra beds (including ICU space). Many hospitals simply cannot afford to do this. In addition, this extra space must be staffed. Georgia is already facing a severe nursing shortage right now.

Previously closed hospital space is being re-opened in Albany & Snellville to provide an additional 208 beds.

Four mobile medical units will be deployed. Twenty bed units will be sent to Rome & Albany. A 24 bed unit will stay in Atlanta, and a second 24 bed unit will be on stand-by.

Licensing rules are being suspended in order to hire nurses whose licenses have lapsed five years or less, and some scope of practice is being opened up.

Most of Georgia’s ambulatory surgery centers have been closed because elective surgeries have been cancelled. These centers can offer additional bedspace, laid off employees for hiring, and use of idle equipment. We need healthcare workers to stay in Georgia! Unfortunately, NY is offering nurses $10,000/week for temporary work.

Ventilators: Data from the National Hospital Questionnaire says we have 3387 ventilators in Georgia. 1200 more have been requested from the national stockpile and those are being shipped in week by week. Cpap and anesthesia machines can be repurposed to substitute for ventilators. Inquiries are being made with private vendors about ventilator loans. IV pumps and portable negative pressure rooms are also needed.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): There is still a huge need for masks, gloves, gowns, and face shields. The mask shortage in particular has caused the most concern. The State of Georgia has received some help from the national stockpile. According to protocols, each patient contact burns through one set of PPE, but nurses are now wearing masks for longer periods of time instead of with every patient.

The State of the Hospital Community: Scientists are predicting that the surge of Georgia’s coronavirus outbreak will occur sometime around April 23rd. That gives Georgia less than three weeks to build out extra bed space, recruit healthcare staff, and purchase needed equipment and supplies.

Atlanta hospitals are very busy. Albany, GA is the #4 hotspot in the world, measured by infected per capita (behind Wuhan, Italy, NY)

Healthcare Worker Morale: Many businesses are helping healthcare workers, such as restaurants and dry-cleaners. Any support you can give is appreciated. Please help if you can. Be creative. Even just supportive social media posts help.

The Governor Sheds Some Light

Once a week, members of the legislature join a 30-minute conference call with the Governor.  Questions are submitted by the House & Senate caucuses. To a large extent, the quality of the information we receive depends on the quality of the questions. If you have a question, please let me know by responding to this email.

Is Georgia considering shutting down at the state borders?:
No. Not at this time. No state has shut down its borders. Florida is doing some screening at its borders.

Can we add data to Public Health daily reports? 1) hospital bed capacity 2) number of nursing home cases 3) number of recovered cases 4) number of cases in correctional facilities?
Tracking of hospital bed capacities is being developed. The number of cases along with locations in Long Term Care facilities has been released. There are not enough resources at this point to track recoveries. Number of cases in correctional facilities is available at: http://www.dcor.state.ga.us/content/cases

Will there be change in election dates?
The Governor’s office says that election dates can only be changed by the General Assembly and the Secretary of State’s office. The Governor’s Emergency Order does not grant this authority to the Governor.

Is Public Health still using a contact tracing plan?
Yes, contact tracing has been in place since the beginning. Contact tracing will continue to be used in areas where the numbers are still small. Also, in areas where clear community transmission is happening, contact tracing will be used to notify potentially exposed people.

What is the rate of testing: What is our lag compared to other states?
The state didn’t get good test kits from the CDC until the last batch was sent to the states. Testing has really ramped up with the establishment of partnerships — universities and public/private. A new rapid test (results in 30 minutes) drive thru site has been set up at Georgia Tech for those who have been pre-screened, through a partnership with CVS.

Georgia Emergency Management (GEMA) Update:

Medical supplies are being routed through the Dept. of Public Health warehouse, utilizing the same team across various agencies who have managed distribution during hurricanes.

Getting supplies is still a struggle but less so now. The supplies are being pushed out to hospitals, Long Term Care facilities, and first responders.

Can we get protective supplies out to retail employees? PPE must be used for the highest need and right now that is for Long Term Care, hospital workers, and first responders.

GA National Guard Update

Newly formed Infection Control Teams are helping with Assisted Living, Nursing Homes and Long Term Care. Local Emergency Management agencies, legislators, and concerned citizens request help. Also, Public Health’s epidemiological team provides reports with numbers of cases so high need facilities can be targeted.

The Infection Control Teams are brand new. The GA National Guard has subject matter experts and has trained hundreds of soldiers within the last week. Adjutant General Tom Carden says, “We are learning as they go. We are adjusting protocols. We are building a plane while flying it.”

The GA National Guard has set up military triages in the state’s hotspots. They have 14 medical support teams that are new.  They recruited nurses, and other healthcare workers who weren’t already working and built teams. They trained, tailored and deployed. They have two teams in Albany. Carden says, “We will not tie ourselves to what we have on our books. We will build what is needed. We have hundreds of soldiers working.”

Between Stimulus and Response, There is a Space

Slowing the spread of the virus and “flattening the curve” is being implemented at a great cost to workers and businesses throughout the state. The Georgia Department of Labor has been hard at work rolling out the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) ACT and responding to a record volume of Unemployment Insurance applications. The economic impact of the pandemic is devastating.

Too many people are having to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and stimulus efforts to put cash into these people’s hands have been slow to roll out. Community Food banks, short on volunteers and money, are responding to record numbers of people needing assistance. Their inventory is down by as much as a third because retail grocery store donations, which they typically depend on, are down. If you are able to donate cash to your local food bank, now is the time to do so. Many families are running out of food and cash.

Small Business Loans (SBA): Small businesses (under 500 employees including non-profits, sole proprietors, independent contractors, Tribal businesses and Veterans organizations) can obtain forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program if they maintain payroll through the crisis. Low-interest loans can be obtained through Economic Injury Disaster Loans, including cash advance emergency grants of $10,000.

If you have applied for any of these SBA assistance options, please let me know how the process went. There have been reports of problems.

Unemployment Insurance: Chances are, someone you know has applied for Unemployment Insurance. Last week, the Georgia Department of Labor processed ten times the normal number of applications. As a result of Federal legislation, recipients will receive an additional 13 weeks of benefits, for a total of 39 weeks, and $600 extra per week. Recipients can earn up to $300 per week in wages without it impacting benefits. When laid off, the employer should apply for benefits through a “partial claim.” Applications can be submitted by individuals, but it will take much longer. Part-time workers qualify for Unemployment Insurance. Contractors, self-employed and gig workers also qualify, but this new part of Unemployment Insurance has not been rolled out yet.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

This photo of a pink-sorrel, by photographer Marc Merlin of Atlanta, captures the play of light and shadow I am feeling in my own life right now. Marc is posting his wildflower photography on his Facebook page each day, so when I scroll through my feed, his artwork brightens my mood.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
–Viktor Frankl
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.

Right now I’m on official quarantine because a Georgia Senator came to work sick. The quarantine was the right thing to do, because now at least four other Senators are sick, and one was hospitalized in critical condition (he’s doing better now). Fortunately, my family’s fine, but I’ll admit I am worried, frustrated, and restless. And the things that normally sustain me and my family during other troubling times, like our church, our gym, or coffee with a friend, are not possible. 

My husband and I have made a daily walk through our neighborhood part of our routine (keeping six feet of distance from others, of course). On these walks, I think about how the nature around us is waking up from winter, and how we, isolating ourselves in our homes, have woken up to a reality we never imagined. 

So, what can we do or say to our friends and ourselves, as we face these very serious circumstances?

While COVID-19 might be new, we have faced and overcome other great challenges. People in our communities unified after September 11th. During the Cold War, children practiced duck-and-cover drills at school, and parents built fallout shelters. People marched and faced tear gas and church bombings to defeat segregation. Families grew victory gardens, shared ration coupons, and donated their scrap metal during World War II. Some of our grandparents made “Garbage Soup” with their neighbors during the Great Depression by throwing everyone’s week-old produce into one big pot with tomato soup.

It feels like we are facing all of these crises at once — a fight against an invisible enemy, economic uncertainty, and political strife. 

And I think that we can stand up for what is right and make it through this catastrophe if we remind ourselves that we have all the ingenuity and bravery that we need in our own community. 

We must stay home to protect our neighbors. We can appreciate the shelter above our heads, enjoy home-cooked food together, or perhaps do the spring cleaning that we have put off. 

Last night, I attended an online karaoke birthday party with friends through the video conferencing service, Zoom. We sang, laughed, and shared our fears with each other. Those who have a little extra cash to spare could shop or send food to those who might be struggling financially. Those who can  sew are making masks with fabric scraps.

This is our burden and our opportunity: to live up to the examples of our family and neighborhood heroes by giving up what we can, even as we acknowledge that we already are sacrificing so much. 

The situation we are in is horrifying, and for many, this may be the hardest thing that we have dealt with in our lives. 

But we are up to this fight. We will make it to the end of the tunnel. Take a deep, grounding breath and remind yourself that we have “the right stuff.” 

Stay strong, keep hope close, stay socially distant, and stay in touch.  

Here are some resources you might find helpful:

 

The last couple of days I’ve been pleading with local mayors and city council members to take action at the local level to slow the rate of coronavirus pandemic. Since I live in unincorporated DeKalb County, I also reached out to DeKalb County elected officials. The Chief Elected Officer, who has unilateral authority to act, has done NOTHING to shut down gatherings. Nothing. We MUST do this to “flatten the curve” and keep our healthcare system functional.

Local governance matters. It’s where the rubber meets the road, especially when state and national governments fail to act.

Residents in my neighborhood have been discussing local governance issues for a while now. Through the last 15 years, suburban communities outside Atlanta incorporated into cities like dominoes falling. My own neighborhood is now surrounded by cities. Five years ago, the precincts in Senate 40 each voted between 56% and 65% in favor of the LaVista Hills city proposal, but the election narrowly failed.

Now it’s five years later, we’re still talking about it — and things have changed.

Senate 40 has ten cities, so I’ve spent the last year getting to know these cities, and how they are governed. People tell me they are very happy with their cities. I’ve also spent time talking to my own neighbors about various municipalization options. Unfortunately, many of the options I thought could work nicely are not allowed under our state constitution, so our options are limited. We either live in a city, or not. As a State Senator, I have to look beyond my own neighborhood at the greater good of all surrounding communities. That’s one of my core values, and that’s also where things start to get complicated.

This fall, DeKalb County commissioned a study through the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute on the effects of municipalization on DeKalb County. It’s a very long report, but the major takeaway is that DeKalb’s police force will be in jeopardy if we add more municipalities that operate their own police force.

That’s why I, along with two other legislators who represent this area, authored a bill, Senate Bill 507, to create a city that shares police with the county — what some call “city-lite.” It allows for a local governance that handles zoning, parks, and roads, to name a few. The need to file a bill now was urgent, as there is another incorporation bill, filed last year and authored by a non-local legislator, that could be acted on by legislators who don’t live in the district. We thought it best for our community to have a bill authored by legislators who personally know our local community, and will ensure that our constituents’ voices are represented.

We also filed the bill as local legislation, which requires signatures from the majority of DeKalb legislators before it can move. This requires the DeKalb delegation to work together to consider the needs of the entire county in order for this bill to be passed. Legislators in south DeKalb are developing their plan as well. While it is impossible to please all constituencies, from those who want police, to those who don’t want a city at all, it feels like now is the time to act if we want a process that is controlled by the people who know our community the best.

This is only the beginning of a process. Almost all bills get amended before they become law, and I expect it to be the same with this cityhood bill. I have a duty to represent my constituents, the majority of whom want to be governed by a local city, but I will do so in a way that considers other voices and the needs of people outside my district. Ultimately, if we can gain the signatures of a majority of DeKalb legislators, voters will then have final approval through a referendum during a future election.

To those of you who live outside the perimeter in the Evansdale and Midvale neighborhoods, this area is of particular interest to me. Conversations with voters reveal that people are split as to whether they want to annex into existing neighboring cities (Tucker) or be part of a new city. That’s why we left that area off the map — so we have time to allow all voices to be heard, and to allow voters in this area to vote in a separate referendum. We are currently looking for funding to design a professional survey to get a better understanding of people’s opinions.

Local governance matters. It’s the final safety net should the larger government fail the people. Please think deeply about our options, and always feel free to share your thoughts with me. This is not easy, and the solution is evolving all the time.

The following is a joint statement from the authors of SB 507, released on March 12th:

“Legislators in DeKalb County whose districts include parts of the remaining portions of northern unincorporated DeKalb County have been carefully considering various municipalization proposals. We recognize that there are many perspectives on this issue, from those who want to remain unincorporated, to those who support the creation of a new city, to those who would like to be annexed into a neighboring existing city.

While recognizing both the pros and cons of municipalization, we also recognize certain developments making it necessary to move forward with serious discussions about how to represent the residents of the unincorporated area in north DeKalb County.

As the unincorporated area is now surrounded by existing cities, some neighborhoods have been impacted by multiple annexations of nearby areas. This leaves those living in the unincorporated area at a disadvantage when it comes to choosing a path forward. In addition, as the area is impacted by regional developments such as the GDOT top-end managed toll-lane project, the surrounding city leaders have a voice at the table that the unincorporated area lacks.

For these reasons, and in recognition of the growing interest in our districts for municipalization, we have filed a cityhood bill (SB507) in order to generate active discussion and input. In addition, we intend to move forward in a way that takes into consideration the impact municipalization has on the remainder of the county.

The map included with the bill does not initially include certain areas on the north and south ends of the footprint where residents have expressed interest in being annexed into existing cities. We would like citizens in these areas to have more time to consider their options and choose the approach that best suits the unique characteristics of each neighborhood.

We think it is very important for north and central DeKalb communities to engage in active conversations, and we want to hear from you. It is simply not clear that our area will remain unincorporated over the next few years so we feel it is time to be proactive in developing a plan for representation.”
–Sen. Elena Parent
–Sen. Sally Harrell
–Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

SB-507 VistaGrove-city-2020 map.PDF

Crossing the Rubicon on Crossover Day

Last week began with anticipation as we ramped up to Crossover Day, the day when all bills must pass one chamber in order to be considered by the other chamber before the close of the two-year session, or biennium.

But that anticipation was coupled with a feeling of nervousness as Georgia began to report more confirmed cases of the coronavirus. On Monday, the House suspended its page program and limited visitors in the House chamber. The Senate did nothing until Tuesday afternoon, when signs went up on Senate Chamber doors saying, “Please be Courteous, Don’t Shake Hands.” I began to be very careful, but watched senators all touch the same door handles. I asked the Senate Leadership to have only the Official Doorkeepers open and close the doors. After all, we still had the 2021 budget to pass before we could go home.

On Wednesday, the Conference Committee on Appropriations — members of the House and Senate working on reconciling the House and Senate bills for the 2020 amended budget — announced that they had included $100 million from Georgia’s rainy day fund to cover the coronavirus response. The last time our rainy day funds were used was to address the Great Recession.

Along with much of the country, Thursday was the tipping point for the legislature when the House and Senate finally crossed the Rubicon together. When we suspended the legislative session without even passing the FY21 budget, we knew we were heading into territory that will change our course in ways we can not yet imagine.

The Capitol had a similar feeling of unease as it did on 9/11 when I was a State Representative, but I was really glad I didn’t have my newborn baby with me like I did on that day. We received limited information in the Chamber and were unable to watch the Governor’s press conference as we worked through the long list of bills on the schedule. We tried to carry on. It was finally announced late afternoon that the House and Senate would suspend the legislative session until further notice. Late Friday, we learned that the Governor was calling for a special legislative session first thing Monday morning to approve a Public Health Emergency.

On the Other Side

In light of the current public health situation, we have cancelled our Peachtree Corners and Chamblee legislative town hall meetings. We will reschedule them for a later date.

Please follow the public health guidance on preventing the spread of coronavirus and what to do when you’re sick. Take time to rest, eat healthy, and enjoy your family. As I told all of my colleagues as we left the Capitol on Thursday, be well. If you do become sick, call your primary doctor first. Don’t go to the ER if you are not at risk and you have mild symptoms. Even if you want to be tested, there are not yet enough tests. If you have non-illness or non-exposure questions, call the Georgia Department of Public Health at 844-442-2681 from 8am – 5pm Monday thru Friday.

If you need help, now is the time to reach out to your support system. If you can, reach out to your neighbors to make sure they are okay. But practice social distancing so we can flatten the curve and keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Unfinished Business

When the 155th Georgia General Assembly reconvenes, we will start on Day 30 of the 40 day session. At that point, the Senate will consider House bills that passed on or before Crossover Day, and the House will consider Senate bills for the remainder of the session. Constitutionally, the only bill the legislature is required to pass is the 2021 budget, which has passed the House, but not the Senate. There is work left to be done, and we don’t have any way of knowing when we can get back to it.

Bills that Crossed Over

The Senate approved a number of bills on or before Crossover Day that will be considered in the House once the session resumes. Here are just some of the bills approved this week:

Special Needs Voucher (SB 386): The Senate approved this bill to expand Georgia’s Special Needs voucher program that allows students with special needs to apply for money to attend private schools. I personally know how difficult it is when the public school system fails a child. However, I voted against this bill for several reasons. We have already shifted millions of public dollars away from public schools to private schools. And Vouchers don’t fully cover the cost of a private school education which leaves many families behind. This is especially true in rural Georgia where many families can’t take advantage of this program because there are no private schools in their communities that address special needs. This creates a two-tiered system for people who can use the program, but many more who can’t.

Voting (SB 463): I wrote about this bill in my last Snapshot when it came to the Senate Ethics Committee in a very rushed process. It has several concerning issues, which could have been fixed had we had more time in committee. Senate Minority leader, Steve Henson, prepared amendments to help improve the bill on the floor, but he was denied the opportunity to present them when Senate Republicans voted to “engross” the bill, a procedural move that locks the bill and blocks it from having any amendments. Preventing the opposing party from having any input into the process is a bad faith move and simply bad government. We had a vigorous debate, but SB 463 passed along party lines.

Ethylene Oxide (SB 426): Last summer, residents in Smyrna and Covington were surprised by a report that ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, was being released into the air by a nearby medical sterilization company. Since then, local officials and lawmakers have been working to come up with solutions that would keep the community safe and keep the company accountable. SB 426 requires any producer that emits ethylene oxide to report the leak to the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) within 24 hours and the EPD to publish the notice on their website.

Sealing Records for Convicted Felons (SB 288): This bill, passed unanimously by the Senate and sponsored by my suite mate, Senator Tonya Anderson, is a positive step forward for criminal justice reform. It allows former first-time offenders who have not committed a violent or sexual crime and remained free of criminal activity for four years to petition the courts to seal and restrict their records from public view. This will open up more employment and housing opportunities for Georgians needing a second chance.

Tobacco Age (SB 375): This bill raises the minimum age to purchase tobacco in Georgia from 18 to 21. It allows law enforcement to confiscate tobacco products from minors, and penalize minors found with tobacco products with community service. Failure to complete community service could result in a suspended drivers license.

SAT/ACT Testing Locations (SB 486): This bill requires all Georgia school systems to administer the SAT and ACT tests during school hours for all 11th grade students who want to take the test. This allows kids who are unable to test during the weekend, or who find it difficult to get to remote testing locations, a more convenient testing option.

Distracted Driving (SB 479): This bill updates Georgia’s two-year old distracted driving law and increases fines for using electronics while driving. A similar bill has been debated in the House.

Seat Belts (SB 226): Georgia law currently only requires that minors use seat belts in the back seats of cars. This new law would require all occupants, regardless of age, to use seat belts.

Feminine Hygiene Products (SB 349):  The Senate approved this bill to require local boards of education to provide free feminine hygiene products to all students in school bathrooms.

Pumping at Work (SB 327): This bill requires employers to provide a lactation room and allow reasonable break time for new mothers to pump breast milk. It also protects new mothers from discriminatory or retaliatory actions by the employer.

Bills that Didn’t Cross Over

After-School Recess (SB 398): After my bill to prohibit the assigning of grades to homework for grades K-2 passed unanimously in committee, I hoped it would be heard on the Senate floor. Instead, we got an important lesson on the powerful Rules Committee that decides which bills are put on the floor schedule. Every Rules Committee has its own personality and I was happy to learn that Democrats that serve on Rules can select Democratic bills to move forward. But SB 398 never got that far. We learned that once a bill passes committee, a higher power determines which bills can even be considered by Rules. My bill landed on the preclearance list under the “NO” column. I tried hard to advocate for moving the bill forward with the Senate leadership, including the Lt. Governor, and made my case in front of the Rules Committee anyway, but to no avail, leaving me only with several theories as to why such a positive, family-friendly bill would get stuck in the process.

Citizen Voting (SR 818): This bill would change language in Georgia’s constitution about who has the right to vote from “Every person who is a citizen” to “Only individuals who are citizens.” The current language grants a right to all citizens, while the new language omits that right and replaces it with a restriction. Constitutional amendments must get a supermajority, a two-thirds vote, to be approved by the Senate, and SR 818 failed to reach that threshold. At best, this resolution seemed designed to stir up the Republican base, and at worst, could have been used to deny the right to vote to certain citizens, now that the right would no longer be enumerated in our constitution. This is why breaking supermajorities is so important to keeping extreme legislation from passing.

Tort Reform (SB 415): This bill proposed sweeping changes to our civil justice system to address what its proponents called “runaway jury verdicts” and concerns over assigning proper liability. But the bill heavily favored the insurance industry and legislators on both sides of the aisle, many of whom were lawyers, argued that the bill contained too many controversial reforms that were not in the best interests of consumers. After four hours of intense debate on Tuesday, the Senate approved a motion in a very close vote (27 to 26) to finally table the bill. A motion to remove this bill from the table on Crossover Day also failed.

North DeKalb Cityhood (SB 507): This bill was filed as local legislation, so the Crossover Day deadline does not apply. I will have more to say about this in a future email, so I can explain some nuanced details that need more space than this Snapshot can provide.

Celebrating Servant-Leaders

Last week, the Women’s Legislative Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral group of female legislators, held its annual Nikki T. Randall Servant Leaders Awards breakfast where each Caucus member has the opportunity to honor women in our districts that have done outstanding public service work in their communities.

I was pleased to not only kick off the breakfast as co-chair of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, but to honor Deacon Lesley-Ann Drake of Dunwoody. Lesley-Ann founded “Path to Shine” that mentors at-risk youth with the goal of guiding them toward a positive, successful path. Under Lesley-Ann’s leadership, Path to Shine has grown to 17 programs, working with 194 children and more than 140 volunteer Mentors across Georgia.

As We Move into Uncertainty

The coronavirus crisis reminds us that we, as humans, are undeniably connected to every other human being in this world, and that walls built to protect power and privilege ultimately crumble. As we embark on drafting the public policy to lift our people back up, we must address the fact that people who are not paid livable wages must come to work sick and make us all sick. That a market-based healthcare system cannot be prepared for the overwhelming volume of need that a pandemic presents. That sometimes bad stuff just happens and it’s not always about bootstraps.

Tuesday afternoon these signs appeared on the Senate Chamber Doors. While the House shut down the page program and limited visitors, the Senate took no action.
Senate members pause for a “huddle” on Crossover Day, trying to figure out the future of the 155th Georgia General Assembly in the face of the coronavirus.
Deacon Lesley-Anne Drake was my guest a Servant Leader Award recipient at the 5th Annual Legislative Women’s Caucus Yellow Rose Award Breakfast Tuesday morning.
Tuesday morning I recongnized Senators Orrock, Unterman and Butler from the Senate well for their leadership through the years of the Women’s Legislative Caucus.
Senator Sally Harrell, Georgia Senate District 40
Reminder: Upcoming Town Hall Meetings:

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Dunwoody/Sandy Springs town hall meeting. We had a great turnout! We have two more coming up:.

  • Peachtree Corners with Representative Beth Moore: March 18th, 6-8 pm at the Peachtree Corners Community Chest Annex, 310 Technology Parkway.
  • Chamblee/Brookhaven with Representatives Scott Holcomb and Matthew Wilson: March 26th, 6-8pm at the Chamblee Civic Center, 3540 Broad St., Chamblee.
It’s Raining Bills

While it rained buckets outside this week, it rained bills inside the Georgia Capitol. The Senate was deluged with a backlog of bills that sat idle during the budget meetings. We held marathon committee meetings as we considered dozens of bills in time for Crossover Day on March 12th, the day that all bills must pass one chamber in order to make it to the other chamber to ultimately become law this year. Bills that don’t pass at least one chamber by Crossover Day will have to be re-filed next session or die on the vine.

Come Rain or Shine, We Must Pass a Budget

This week, the Senate passed the 2020 amended budget, also known as the “little” budget. The Senate agreed with many of the House’s decisions to restore funding for critical services like public defenders, accountability courts, food safety inspectors, and mental health services. But the budget still cuts $159 million and 1,255 vacant positions. This budget now goes back to the House, where a Conference Committee will be appointed to work out final differences. The House is still working on the “big” 2021 budget.

It’s highly unusual to have a revenue shortfall during strong economic times — an issue created by a risky 2018 tax cut made on the prediction of income that never materialized. However, I do appreciate the leadership provided by Sen. Jack Hill, the Senate Appropriations Chair, who was able to use his deep knowledge of Georgia government to prioritize services, especially for the elderly, children, and disabled. We will need Sen. Hill’s leadership to deal with economic ramifications of the coming coronavirus.

Storm Clouds Are Gathering

Voting: Georgia’s new voting machines provide a printed ballot as an official record of your votes. Please verify your ballot before scanning it into the system, and alert a poll worker if you see any mistakes. This printout is a ballot, not a receipt — so don’t leave the polling place with it! Help spread the word.

The consequences of last year’s decision to purchase new, expensive voting machines are now becoming clear. Testing last year revealed significant security concerns. Privacy issues recently led one county to reject the new system in favor of hand-marked paper ballots. Last week, the State Election Board voted to conduct election recounts using the scanned barcodes that cannot be read by humans, instead of doing a hand count of the printed names. Last year I proposed a “ban the barcode” amendment, but it failed along party lines.

On the surface, SB 463, a bill filed last Friday on behalf of the Secretary of State’s office and fast-tracked to the Ethics Committee on Tuesday, seems designed to address some of the issues with absentee ballot signatures and long lines at the polls. But the bill is not well thought out. It allows voters to voluntarily include a photocopy of their driver’s license with their absentee ballot to avoid having their signature challenged. I am concerned this will create a two-tiered system in which the ballots of voters without access to a printer will be more harshly scrutinized. And the bill encourages local officials to split precincts with expected high voter turnout. Changes to voting precincts lead to voter confusion and should be considered only as a last resort. Other solutions like additional early voting locations should be considered instead.

The Committee hearing for this bill got contentious as voting rights activists testified against it. Ten Capitol police officers were unnecessarily called in. Sadly, the bill passed out of committee by a party line vote.

Guns: While a variety of gun safety bills sponsored by Democrats have stalled in committee this session, SB 224, a dangerous bill that among other things allows guns in places of worship and public court buildings, and changes the meaning of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon to allow people to brandish guns, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines.

I will vote no on both the voting bill and the gun bill when they come to the Senate floor next week.

On The Brighter Side

A number of bills that will bring sunshine to important issues and help ensure a brighter future for Georgians also moved forward this week. I had the opportunity to present five of my bills in committee, two of which will move forward while others will require more work in the interim.

Medicaid Public Option: My week began bright and early at 8 am on Monday when I presented SB 339, my Medicaid Public Option Bill, to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Jack Hill has offered his support for a study committee to conduct an actuarial study in the interim so we can determine what the Peachcare Public Option would cost. I’m thrilled that if the study committee is granted, Georgia will join the ranks of more than a dozen states evaluating this option.

After School Recess: When I presented SB 398, my bill to prohibit graded homework for grades K-2, I reminded Committee members that the Governor vetoed our school recess bill, citing “local control” issues. SB 398 provides the ultimate local control to parents to decide how to spend precious family time. The bill passed unanimously.

SB 398 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee where it is decided if it will go to the Senate floor for a full vote. Each member of the Rules Committee gets to choose a bill that will be heard on the Senate floor the following day. I was heartened to learn that the Democratic members of the Rules Committee move forward Democratic bills without much objection from their Republican counterparts.

Maternal Mortality: Georgia has the dismal distinction of being 50th in our country in maternal mortality. Last year, a bipartisan study committee took a close look at the issue and made a variety of recommendations. This year, the Women’s Legislative Caucus decided to take action. Members have been taking points of personal privilege in the House and Senate during the past few weeks to encourage Republican leadership to expand Medicaid for new mothers beyond the current 2 months postpartum. These efforts have paid off as news broke on Friday that the House will move forward with a bill to expand Medicaid to mothers 6 months postpartum with the Speaker’s support. While it’s not the 12 months that we had been hoping for, 6 months of extended coverage can save lives.

Styrofoam and Plastic Bag Ban: I presented SB 434, my styrofoam and plastic bag bill, to the Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee. People spoke both for and against the bill. I didn’t expect action on the bill this year, but it was helpful to hear the feedback and testimony to understand how we can work in the interim to strengthen the bill. Several different groups, from retailers who will need to change the way they do business, to the timber industry who has a stake in alternative packaging, to state government agencies that will have to take on enforcement of the law, to environmental groups who may have ideas about how to best write the law, all have a stake in SB 434.

Higher EducationSB 400, a bill I co-sponsored with Senator Elena Parent, requires thorough evaluation of the state’s Dual Enrollment program. The bill passed unanimously out of the Higher Ed Committee Thursday. Sen. Parent and I were both frustrated that cuts were made to the program without much data to make an informed decision. Also, I presented SB 456 to the Committee, a bill that would prorate tuition and fees for part-time students. The bill got favorable feedback from my colleagues, and I was surprised upon finishing my presentation that the University System Chancellor and Presidents of both UGA and Georgia Tech were sitting right behind me. What an audience!

Hazardous Waste: This year ethylene oxide was added to the list of hazardous waste discussed by the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Last summer residents of three Atlanta area communities learned the Sterigenics company had been leaking ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, at ten times the allowed federal level. Several bills addressed the issues through transparency and reporting requirements. The first bill the Committee passed was an improvement, but weak. In an unusual act, the Committee Chair called another “special” meeting after hours, at which point we were presented with a bill substitute with much stronger language. Even though the weaker bill had passed, the author continued to listen to community members and ultimately chose to pass a stronger bill.

Some Silver Linings

With 10 cities in my district, working on city annexation and border issues takes up a great deal of my time. Sometimes these issues cause tension because they’re all about our local communities where we live, work and play. Sometimes it comes down to neighbors sitting down with neighbors working through their concerns. I was happy this week to host a meeting at the Capitol to help the cities of Peachtree Corners and Norcross.

In the coming weeks I look forward to doing the same in my own community and with my own neighbors, as we come together to talk through cityhood and annexation issues.

Next Week’s Forecast

The weather service predicts more rain next week, and I predict more bills for the Senate with Crossover Day upon us on Thursday. We’ll be in session everyday except Wednesday, but there will be lots of committee meetings that day. Crossover Day is a great opportunity to come and watch all or parts of the session from the Senate gallery. It will be a long one!

Reminder: Upcoming Town Hall Meetings:

I’m pleased to be co-hosting several town hall meetings with House Representatives in various parts of Senate District 40 so that we can update you on the legislative session, answer your questions, and hear your thoughts.

  • Dunwoody/Sandy Springs with Representatives Mike Wilensky and Josh McLaurin: March 4th, 7-9 pm at the Dunwoody Annex, 4470 N. Shallowford Rd., Dunwoody
  • Peachtree Corners with Representative Beth Moore: March 18th, 6-8 pm at the Peachtree Corners Community Chest Annex, 310 Technology Parkway.
  • Chamblee/Brookhaven with Representatives Matthew Wilson and Scott Holcomb: March 26th, 6-8pm at the Chamblee Civic Center, 3540 Broad St., Chamblee.
Public Service Announcement: Watch for the US Census

I’m honored to serve on Representative Lucy McBath’s Census Complete Count Leadership Committee. Our charge is to make sure everyone is counted in the year’s Census, especially in hard-to-count areas.

The Census determines everything from how political districts are drawn to how billions of our taxpayer dollars are allocated. Between March 12 – 20th, you will receive a postcard asking you to participate on-line, by phone, or by mail. You can find more information about the 2020 Census here.

Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Being in the Senate often feels like being in a relationship. Sometimes things go really well and it feels like you’re truly accomplishing important things together. Sometimes things are pretty rocky. And sometimes, well…it’s just complicated.

Sometimes We All Agree

Monday could have been called, “The Day Everyone Decided to Agree.” Democrats and Republicans voted together on several bills, the most important of which were aimed at improving the health of people and communities across the state. SB 359 should reduce the number of surprise medical bills people receive. SB 123 raises fees for dumping coal ash in Georgia and is one of several bills circulating this session aimed at addressing safe coal ash storage.

Wednesday, the Capitol halls were teaming with citizens from all over the state. There were more than 500 physical therapists advocating for equitable PT co-pays, Georgia Senior Living Association advocates pushing for assisted living reform, and the Girl Scouts were there learning about government. The sea of red shirts were also there — the Moms Demand Action advocates — pressing for gun safety.

Getting paged to go outside the chamber to meet constituents is my favorite part of the day. People at the capitol often refer to this activity as “working the ropes,” because citizens must stay behind the ropes that protect the Senate chamber doors. I can always tell the nervous look of someone who is at the ropes for the first time and I love putting them at ease, helping to make it a positive experience.

Sometimes We Don’t Agree

Unfortunately, partisanship can and does get in the way of getting things done.

This week I went to the well on Moms Demand Action Day. My Campus Carry repeal bill has yet to be heard in committee. I asked that it and other gun safety legislation be given hearings because democracy is about giving voice to the people, and those Moms and gun safety advocates deserve their chance to be heard, even if the majority party doesn’t agree.

Sometimes We Make Progress

My legislative agenda gained some momentum this week when I got word that three of my bills will be heard in committee next week. I’m particularly grateful to Senator Jack Hill, whom I have known since I served in the House, for allowing me time Monday morning to present SB 339, the Medicaid Public Option bill, to the Senate Appropriations Committee. This is the Committee that’s so busy with the budget! I’m on the schedule at 8am, March 2, in room 341 in the Capitol.

I’ve been promised hearings on my “After School Recess” bill (SB 398), and the “Prorated College Fees” bill (SB 456), but have not yet received specific dates.

I also filed three new bills:

  • The Styrofoam BanSB 434 bans styrofoam takeout cups and containers, as well as single-use plastic bags. I promised this bill to three young constituents who are all very concerned about our environment. The ban is designed to encourage consumers to bring their own bags for free, or pay a small fee for paper bags — just a dime for every $25 of items. Bag fees have been shown to be the most effective way to encourage people to bring their own bags, which is the ultimate goal.
  • Part-time Student Prorated Fees: Last year, I learned that Georgia Gwinnett College students often take eight years to graduate because they attend part-time. Then I realized many part-time students must pay full fees every semester, making their “drive out” degree price much higher than full-time students. So I filed SB 456, which requires the University and Technical College systems of Georgia to prorate fees based on the actual number of credit hours taken. My chamber seatmate happens to be the Chair of the Higher Education Committee and he told me Friday he likes my bill, so it will have a hearing next week.
  • The Permanent Classroom Act (aka “The Trailer Bill”): On Friday, I filed a bill that would better regulate the use of trailers as temporary classrooms in schools. It mandates a variety of safety measures and inspections, requires that a plan is put in place to convert the temporary classrooms into permanent classrooms within 5 years, and puts school funding at risk for those that don’t comply. This bill will be given a number and assigned to a committee on Monday.
Sometimes It’s Just Complicated

On Wednesday, I met with Rudy Bowen, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Board Vice Chair, and Josh Waller, GDOT’s Director of Policy & Government Affairs, and they caught me up on the history of transportation funding since I left the Georgia House. It’s clear that we now just need a full-throated funding source for transit and there are several potential avenues, including dedicating the rideshare tax that was just passed earlier this year, to transit.

But the biggest complicating factor is inter-regional agreement and cooperation. Getting various counties to agree to fund transit has always been the major challenge, but it’s essential to pulling down federal transportation dollars. The formation of the ATL, the new Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, which just formed in 2018 and is designed to encourage better regional transit planning in the metro area, should address this issue.

Overall, it’s a good time to fight for transit funding, and SR 654, the Constitutional amendment bill that I filed to allow the gas tax to be used for transit funding, put people on notice that I’m ready to be part of the solution.

Sometimes It Takes a Little Horsetrading 

Representative Beth Moore and I have been collaborating on a bill to ban the sale or distribution of products that contain asbestos. The bill was inspired by a constituent whose wife died of Mesothelioma, a terrible and deadly form of cancer that is primarily caused by asbestos exposure.

This week I co-signed SB 407, a bill to discourage illegal palmetto berry harvesting, a problem in south Georgia. The author of this bill is the Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Harper. I’m hoping that protecting south Georgia landowners will pay off and Sen. Harper will co-sign my asbestos bill!

What’s Next

I have an incredibly busy schedule this coming week with three bill hearings, committee meetings, some significant bills that will come to the Senate floor and a mid-week town hall. As always, I invite you to come down to the Capitol to experience it all in person.