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Almost 60% of Georgia COVID outbreaks reported in K-12 schools

Almost 60% of all new COVID-19 outbreaks are now in Georgia’s K-12 schools, the state’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday.

Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said the highly contagious Delta variant is responsible for the surge.

“The Delta variant began spreading in Georgia around July 4,” Drenzek told a virtual meeting of the state’s Board of Public Health. “There has been an exponential increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the last 60 days.”

According to Monday’s COVID totals provided by the state Department of Public Health, more than 1.1 million Georgians have contracted coronavirus since the pandemic began in March 2020. A total of 20,705 Georgians have died, and there have been more than 76,000 hospitalizations.

According to data provided by Drenzek to the board, there has been a 20-fold increase in cases; a 13-fold increase in hospitalizations; and a 17-fold increase in COVID deaths since July 1.

However, both Gov. Brian Kemp’s office and Drenzek said state data has begun to show slight decreases over the last seven days.

Dr. R. Chris Rustin, director of the department’s Division of Health Protection, said as of Tuesday, more than 10 million vaccine doses have been administered in Georgia, with 4.7 million Georgians, or 45% of the state’s population, being fully vaccinated. About 5.4 million of the state’s residents, or 53%, have received at least one vaccine dose.

Rustin also said there are 136 sites in Georgia offering monoclonal antibody treatments, commonly known as Regeneron infusion.

Rustin said preliminary data shows monoclonal antibody therapy is effective mostly when the infection is new.

“You have to get it early on,” said Rustin, who added that the DPH is collaborating with the state Department of Community Health to support the sites.

“It’s important to stress this is not a substitute for vaccines,” Rustin said.

The treatment, according to the Southeast Georgia Health System, helps the immune system stop COVID-19 from spreading in people with mild to moderate symptoms. The antibodies are synthetic proteins that are manufactured in a lab.

The therapy, according to the health system, isn’t new; doctors have long used this treatment to deliver drugs or radioactive substances directly to cancer cells.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibody therapy to treat COVID-19.

According to the FDA, clinical trials showed that COVID-19 patients who received antibody infusions had a significant reduction in hospitalizations and deaths compared to patients who received a placebo.

Florida has launched a statewide initiative that offers the treatment at 21 sites. While Georgia offers the treatment at far more sites than its Sunshine State neighbor, it seemingly has no plans to roll out a statewide program.

When asked by Capitol Beat if Gov. Brian Kemp has any plans for such an initiative, the governor’s office referred to Kemp’s Aug. 24, 2021, authorization to send 105 Georgia National Guard personnel to 10 hospitals around the state.

“This Georgia National Guard mission is in addition to the 2,800 state-supported staff and 450 new beds brought online, at a total state investment of $625 million through December of this year,” Kemp said.

Rome Ga Cares team to honor late Polk County deputy during Louisiana relief trip

An expected 17 Floyd County sheriff’s deputies, prison officers and local volunteers will head out at 6 a.m. on Monday to assist with Hurricane Ida clean up in LaFourche Parish, Louisiana.

The group includes Chaplain David Thornton, Sheriff Dave Roberson, former Sheriff Tim Burkhalter and Floyd County Prison Warden Mike Long.

The trip will also honor the life of Polk County sheriff’s deputy Barry Henderson, who passed away from COVID-19 earlier this year.

Henderson and his wife, Chrisy Henderson, have been on multiple Rome Ga Cares trips over the years — and this year is no different for Chrisy, who has been working at the donation drop-off site every day.

“Chrisy has been coming in every day and sorting through boxes of donations and buckets,” Thornton said. “We appreciate you Chrisy, and we’re thankful you’ll be going on this trip.”

Thornton said estimates are that about 96,000 people in the region are still without power.

With Tropical Storm Nicholas coming through, Thornton suspects that number will only grow.

While the group is in LaFourche Parish, they’ll be handing out thin blue line dog tags that have the Bible verse Matthew 5:9 on the back. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”

They’re also having T-shirts made for the trip honoring Barry Henderson.

During the five-day period they’ll be in Louisiana, the group will be cutting down trees, cleaning up debris, working with the local sheriff’s office and handing out all sorts of essentials to people impacted by the hurricane.

Long will also be supplying a few box trailers and a water wagon from the prison. This will be the warden’s first time traveling with Rome GA Cares, although he’s done disaster relief trips in the past.

“We’re really looking forward to working with the sheriff’s department. I’ve got a member of my command staff going and a corrections officer going,” he said. “The prison’s never really done anything like this before.”

The chaplain is also advising the volunteers to watch out for the former sheriff, who is known to pull pranks on these trips. Thornton recounted one time when he found his pillow filled with baby powder and ended up covered in the white powder when he laid down.

Burkhalter laughingly denies he did it, saying there is “no proof.”

Rome GA Cares is taking donations through Friday and still needs bleach and disinfectant spray in addition to money. People can stop by North Rome Church of God at 1929 N. Broad St. from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to drop off supplies and donations. They can also sponsor a bucket of cleaning supplies for $75.

Hadleigh Barfield, a student at Model Elementary School

Justice Department launches probe of conditions in Georgia prisons

ATLANTA — The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday it has opened a statewide investigation into conditions inside Georgia’s prisons.

The investigation will examine whether the state provides prisoners reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners.

The agency also will continue an existing investigation into whether Georgia provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other prisoners who identify with the LGBTQ community reasonable protection from sexual abuse by other prisoners and by staff.

“Ensuring the inherent human dignity and worth of everyone, including people who are incarcerated inside our nation’s jails and prisons, is a top priority,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“The Justice Department’s investigations into prison conditions have been successful at identifying systemic constitutional violations and their causes, fixing those causes and stopping the violations. We are investigating prison violence and abuse in Georgia’s prisons to determine whether constitutional violations exist, and if so, how to stop them.”

The investigation was sparked by complaints from civil rights groups and others who have expressed concerns about inmate safety.

Clarke said at least 26 prisoners died in Georgia prisons by confirmed or suspected homicide last year, and 18 have died so far in 2021.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., also raised concerns about Georgia prisons earlier this year during a Judiciary Committee hearing into President Joe Biden’s nomination of Merrick Garland to serve as attorney general.

Specifically, Ossoff cited the treatment of prisoners at the South Fulton Jail. He read from a plaintiff’s brief in a federal lawsuit against the facility filed by a nonprofit organization.

“The cells were covered in bodily fluids, rust, and mold,” Ossoff read from the brief. “In these conditions, the inmates deteriorated, leaving them incoherent, screaming unintelligibly, laying catatonic, banging their heads against walls, and repeatedly attempting suicide.”

Ossoff went on to urge then-nominee Garland to make securing the human rights of incarcerated Americans a top priority.

Clarke said the new investigation is the Justice Department’s second into prison conditions in Georgia. The agency launched an investigation into sexual violence against lesbian, gay and transgender inmates at the hands of staff and other prisoners, which remains ongoing, she said.

All three U.S. attorney’s offices in Georgia said they would cooperate with the probe.

“Individuals sentenced to prison in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities deserve to be treated humanely,” said Kurt R. Erskine, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.

“Our office is committed to ensuring state prisoners are safe while serving their sentences. We look forward to working cooperatively with the Georgia Department of Corrections to ensure the safety of all individuals in its prisons.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections could not be reached immediately for comment.

GOP challenger files to face Marjorie Taylor Greene in primary

A Northwest Georgia CEO has filed paperwork to challenge U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in the 14th District Republican primary.

Jennifer Strahan said Tuesday she is concerned about the direction the country is headed under President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and she wants to represent the district on committees that help steer. She referenced the freshman Greene being stripped of her committee assignments due to her controversial behavior.

“It’s not about being a celebrity, it’s about bringing results back to the district,” Strahan said. “Marjorie Taylor Greene has no influence in the halls of Congress so … by virtue of that, our district has no voice in the policies.”

Strahan is president and CEO of J. Osley & Co., a national advisory firm she started that specializes in healthcare. She said she and her husband, Bowen, and their 5-year-old son live on the border of Paulding and Cobb counties.

This is the first foray into politics for the woman who describes herself as a mother, wife, entrepreneur and conservative. She said she and her family are active in community life and she’s worked with the hospitals in the district.

“Our little boy just started kindergarten,” Strahan said. “This is where our roots are, where he was born and will be raised.”

The primaries are set for April 25, 2022. Mark Clay of Rome has also filed to run in the GOP contest.

Four Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination: Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis; Marcus Flowers, a Bremen veteran; Holly McCormack of Paulding County; and Lateefah Conner of Dallas.

The district covers the counties of Floyd, Gordon, Polk, Chattooga, Walker, Catoosa, Dade, Whitfield, Haralson, Murray and Paulding, and part of Pickens. It is one of the most heavily Republican districts in the state, although the Georgia General Assembly is slated to redraw the voting maps this fall.