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Public health: Not enough vaccine available yet, please be patient

At this point there’s only “a meager and sporadic supply” of COVID-19 vaccine available in northwest Georgia as the spread of the virus continues at a high rate.

“We wish we had enough vaccine available for everyone who wants it right now and regret we do not,” Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for the Department of Public Health Northwest Health District said in a release. “Until vaccine becomes more readily available, we ask for your patience and understanding. Everyone who desires the COVID-19 vaccine will ultimately be able to get it.”

During a press conference on Friday, Gov. Brian Kemp said state officials are working to distribute around 11,500 doses per day.

At a news conference, Kemp said Georgia’s vaccine distribution program is “making steady progress” but is still constrained by the limited number of doses the state has received so far. He expects distribution “will be ramped up” in the coming weeks.

Kemp’s update on vaccine distribution came as Georgia logged its highest-ever daily total of reported positive COVID-19 cases on Friday at 10,400. Floyd County continues to report 50-60 new infections each day. Those new infections have continued to stress already harried healthcare facilities.

As of Friday, there were 158 COVID-19 positive patients being treated in local healthcare facilities.

Despite that, no new restrictions on businesses or any lockdowns are forthcoming despite the spike, Kemp said, adding he will “have an open mind” in the event “something changes.”

Georgia’s rollout has been complicated by large demand for vaccines from health-care workers in metro Atlanta compared to hospitals and clinics in more rural parts of the state, where Kemp said some front-line workers have refused to take the vaccine. He called their reluctance “unimaginable” and urged everyone to get the vaccine once it’s available.

Around 135,000 vaccines have been administered out of the roughly 554,000 doses shipped to Georgia as of Thursday evening, according to the state Department of Public Health’s website – though Kemp said the website’s data is lagging behind the number of vaccines actually given so far.

Local health departments have been swamped with requests to book appointments Kemp broadened which Georgians can receive the vaccine last week to people 65-years of age and older, police and firefighters.

For those looking to receive a vaccine once it is available can the health department at or go to the Georgia Department of Public Health Northwest Health District website nwgapublichealth.org to register. Once vaccines are available those who have registered will be notified.

“We are uncertain how long that might be,” said Nichole Crick, the district’s health district program manager. “All immunizations will be by appointment only. We cannot accommodate walk-ins until a more reliable and plentiful supply of vaccine is available,” she said.

As more of the vaccine is available, and the state authorizes it for larger portions of the population, it will be available through other healthcare providers and pharmacies, Crick said.

Local Democrats and Republicans regroup, look ahead after long and contentious election season

After a long and intense political season, local Democrat and Republican party officials are already thinking about what’s up next.

Democrats have had very little time to catch their collective breaths and enjoy the taste of victory with another hefty workload on the horizon.

“We’ve spent so many years as underdogs on the short end of races that got closer and closer,” Wendy Davis, a Rome city commissioner and recent elector for President-elect Joe Biden, said. “I didn’t really let myself believe we could win, I just hoped we’d be close enough to feel like we’d be there. For us to have won for Biden in November was amazing, but I still couldn’t let myself believe. “

Meanwhile Republicans begin processing a round of relatively rare losses, at least in recent years.

“I’m disappointed in the election results because giving the Democrats total control of the government will be terrible for our country,” Floyd County Republican Party chair Luke Martin said. “Despite these losses, the Floyd County GOP had a lot of successes this year. We knocked on approximately 50,000 doors in Floyd County. We recruited volunteers to serve at every precinct throughout this election.”

A recent riot stemming from a rally at the U.S. Capitol after continuing false claims of voter fraud by President Donald Trump drew very similar responses from members of both political parties.

“It’s horrifying that so many people felt like a solution to being unhappy with election results in America was to rampage on the Capitol,” Davis said. “It’s not the kind of thing we expect to see. It’s not the model of the democracy that I’ve worked for. I find it rather galling that there are particularly so many members of Congress from Georgia who seem to think the presidential election was full of voter fraud, but their own elections weren’t. Nobody likes to lose. Everybody wants our elections to be fair.”

Martin said the mob who stormed government buildings in the Capitol this week don’t share his party’s values.

“What happened at the capitol wasn’t a protest, it was an embarrassment,” Martin said. “The rioters who stormed the sacred halls of congress should be ashamed and embarrassed of themselves for their conduct. If they were conservatives they certainly don’t represent the rest of us. Attacking D.C. and Capitol Police officers shares no resemblance to true Republican values.”

Now that she’s had time to process the presidential and senate wins, Davis said the next step is to help the winners prepare to serve constituents.

“I was just blown away by the turnout,” Davis said. “I’m just joyful, I’m super excited about having two U.S. senators who will really put in the work to take care of ordinary Georgians.”

While happy with the larger than usual Democrat turnout in the general election and runoff, Davis isn’t satisfied.

“I’m someone who wants more people to vote than are currently voting, but until we get to 100% turnout I’m not going to be happy that we’ve done enough,” Davis said.

In what’s normally referred to as an off year election, local municipal races will see plenty of action in 2021.

“We’ll be catching our breath and focusing on city elections,” Davis said who also has her Rome City Commission seat up for reelection this year. “I’m looking forward to putting myself out there and I hope the voters like the work I’ve done and reelect me in November. All seven members of the City school board are up (for reelection) in November.”

Aside from local focus, both Davis and Martin are already gearing up for 2022.

“Locally, we get to take a break from partisan elections for a little while, but I expect big battles in 2022 for the statewide elections like governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state,” Martin said. “I imagine candidates for those offices will begin campaigning by this spring. We’ve grown our membership significantly this year despite the pandemic. We’re working on rolling out a new website and other ways to be more accessible for those interested in what we’re doing in Floyd County.”

Mac Willett (center, front) of Willett Engineering Company in Atlanta, and David Perry (center, back), of North Georgia Equipment in Rome, examine the roof and attic space above the DeSoto auditorium to determine placement of the new units. They’re accompanied by incoming HDTF president, Jim Powell (left), and outgoing president, David Clonts (right).

Karmella Lewis, a first-grader at Johnson Elementary School

General Assembly convenes Monday: What you need to know

Floyd County’s four legislative delegates are preparing to head to Atlanta for the Monday kickoff of the Georgia General Assembly’s annual 40-day session.

Lawmakers will be meeting in person, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The 180 House members will be split into three rooms with remote connections, including new technology to allow them to vote in real time, Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said.

“We’ve suspended the page program, guests, and group recognitions. We’ll still have the chaplain of the day, but they won’t be able to bring guests,” Ralston said at a press conference Thursday. “I have an obligation to take care of the health of the House, the staff and, yes, even the news media.”

The 56 Senators will have staggered voting and separated seating. Masks will be required in both chambers and other precautions are in place as well.

“Georgia Tech will be testing everybody twice a week,” Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, said Friday. “They’ve already done one set this week.”

Hufstetler, an anesthetist at Redmond Regional Medical Center, will be getting his second dose of the vaccine on Tuesday. While it’s expected to be about 95% effective after seven days, he said he won’t be changing his distancing and mask habits.

The legislative sessions and other activities — including some committee hearings — will be livestreamed online through the Georgia General Assembly website at legis.ga.gov.

The first week will be mostly devoted to committee and office assignments, adopting procedural rules and setting the calendar. They’ll likely wrap up Thursday. Jan. 18 is the Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday, so they’ll be off that Monday. They’ll get down to work in earnest on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

“Some of those days that week may be budget days,” Hufstetler said. “We’ll have to see.”

While the legislative session is just 40 days a year, the calendar is suspended on days the chambers don’t convene in full. Budget hearings — where lawmakers get presentations from the governor, judiciary and agency heads — usually take weeks.

The legislature will adopt a supplemental 20-21 budget, which adjusts spending through June 30 based on updated revenue numbers. Their focus throughout the session, however, will be on setting the “big budget” — funding from July 1 through June 30, 2022.

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to unveil his projected revenue figures and proposed budget at a joint session during the second week. The House and Senate will use those numbers in separate deliberations, and the various proposals must be reconciled and adopted before the session ends.

Here’s a look at Floyd County’s delegates and how to contact them:

♦ Hufstetler chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees taxing and revenue collection laws. A former county commissioner who led a major overhaul that stabilized Floyd County’s budget, Hufstetler’s avowed focus is on closing loopholes and “collecting everything we’re owed,” with an eye to further reducing taxes.

This year, he’s also applied for a seat on the powerful Senate Rules Committee. Bills passed by other committees go to Rules — and that’s the body that decides if they’ll go to the floor for a vote.

Hufstetler’s district covers all of Floyd County, southern Chattooga County, and the western parts of Gordon and Bartow counties.

His office address is 121-C State Capitol, Atlanta, GA, 30334. Phone: 404-656-0034. Email: chuck.hufstetler@senate.ga.gov.

♦ Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairs the human resources subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee charged with writing the budget. Her subcommittee puts together the funding for social services ranging from foster care to mental health.

“There’s some heavy lifting to do in the world of addiction and mental health this year,” she said Friday.

Dempsey’s district covers the city of Rome and most of central Floyd County.

Her office address is 245 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA, 30334. Phone: 404-463-2248. Email: katie.dempsey@house.ga.gov.

♦ Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, chairs the House Insurance Committee, which deals with legislation concerning insurance and the insurance industry. He owns a local State Farm insurance agency with his wife and is a retired Georgia State Patrol trooper who has been instrumental in public safety and homeland security legislation.

Lumsden’s district covers all of Chattooga County and the western half of Floyd County, including Cave Spring and stretching around to take in Shannon.

His office address is 220-A State Capitol, Atlanta, GA, 30334. Phone: 404-656-7850. Email: eddie.lumsden@house.ga.gov.

♦ Rep. Mitchell Scoggins, R-Rydal, is starting his second two-year term and will likely see an upgrade of his committee assignments this year. The retired Bartow County probate judge was initially assigned to the House judiciary and transportation committees and he’s been keeping a close eye on the planned Rome-Cartersville Development Corridor linking U.S. 411 to I-75.

Scoggins’ district covers the northern half of Bartow County and the southeastern part of Floyd County.

His office, which could change next week, has been at 612-B Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA, 30334. Phone: 404-656-0325. Email: mitchell.scoggins@house.ga.gov.

Voting laws, criminal justice reform highlight 2021 General Assembly agenda

ATLANTA — Legislative leaders are promising to tackle two issues that dominated the news in Georgia and across the nation when the 2021 General Assembly session kicks off on Monday.

Weeks of protests and legal challenges sparked by President-elect Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory over President Donald Trump in Georgia and other battleground states have prompted a call for changes to voting laws in Georgia, including restrictions on mail-in voting.

Street demonstrations across America following the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, and the shooting death of another Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, by white vigilantes in Georgia provided momentum for state lawmakers to pass a hate-crimes bill last June and pledge to follow up with more criminal-justice reforms this year.

The General Assembly also will fulfill the annual legal requirement of passing a balanced state budget, buoyed by healthier-than-expected state revenues but hampered by demands from state agencies to restore at least some of the spending cuts the legislature imposed last year.

And lawmakers will renew what has become an annual debate over whether to legalize gambling in Georgia in various forms, from online sports betting and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing to casinos.

Proposals to change Georgia’s election laws will take center stage under the Gold Dome as lawmakers from both parties grapple with changing voter patterns that saw the 2020 presidential election and both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats flip in Democrats’ favor.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is calling for tightening state voter ID laws for mail-in ballots and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting, which since 2005 has allowed Georgians to request absentee ballots for any reason, not just because they live out of state or are physically impaired.

The June 9 primaries, Nov. 3 general election and Jan. 5 Senate runoffs each saw more than one million absentee ballots cast, shattering previous mail-in voting records.

Raffensperger traced slow turnaround times that sparked suspicions over Georgia’s election integrity to the flood of absentee ballots.

“It makes no sense when we have three weeks of in-person early voting available,” Raffensperger told state lawmakers last month. “It opens the door to potential illegal voting.”

House Speaker David Ralston said another priority will be getting rid of the “jungle primary” law in Georgia, which set the stage for the huge field of 21 candidates in November’s special election for the Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler.

It opened the door for former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, to split the GOP vote with Loeffler, forcing last week’s runoff that resulted in Loeffler’s loss to Democrat Raphael Warnock.

“I don’t know who could be in favor of a jungle primary anymore,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

Ralston said he also expects the General Assembly to consider repealing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which has been invoked by the defendants in the Arbery case, as a follow-up to last year’s hate crimes measure.

Rep. Carl Gilliard, D-Garden City, pre-filed a bill last month to do just that. He said the citizen’s arrest law dates back to the 19th century and is out of date.

“The average person can pick up a phone, dial 911 and have the professionals handle it,” Gilliard said.

Gilliard said the Arbery case and last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests will put momentum behind repealing the citizen’s arrest law.

“This has been a year where people all over the world sounded an alarm,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to the voice and the will of the people.”

Finances a focus

Legislative budget writers enter the 2021 General Assembly session more optimistic than might have been expected in the midst of a pandemic-driven economic slowdown that has forced thousands of businesses to close and put several million Georgians on unemployment. State tax revenues have been coming in at a healthy pace in recent months.

With Democrats taking over the White House and both houses of Congress, the state can expect more federal aid than would have been likely otherwise, said Danny Kanso, tax and budget policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Congressional Republicans dug in their heels last fall against putting more COVID-19 relief toward state and local government affected by the pandemic.

“The odds of getting significant aid to state and local governments is increasing substantially,” Kanso said.

But Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery noted the 2021 session is starting with the state in a financial hole, since the General Assembly was forced to cut agency spending by $2.2 billion last year.

“We’re doing better than we thought we would, but I don’t think we’ll be in a position to add that $2.2 billion back,” said Tillery, R-Vidalia.

Ralston said legislative Republicans have yet to fulfill a commitment to voters to follow through with the second installment of a state income tax cut and a 2% teacher pay raise.

“People need their money,” he said. “They need to keep more of their money.”

Gov. Brian Kemp said raising teacher pay remains a priority but will be a tough sell during this session because of the economic impacts of COVID-19.

“We still want to do the pay raise,” he said. “It’s just exactly when we can get to that, I think it’s a little early to commit as to when. … If we have revenues, we’ve got to make sure that we restore funding to our schools.”

While lawmakers face no legal obligation to address the legalized gambling issue every year as they do with the budget, it has become a perennial subject of debate under the Gold Dome.

Nothing has come close to passing, however, due to the difficulty of amassing the two-thirds majorities in each legislative chamber necessary to approve a constitutional amendment. Another obstacle has been opposition from religious conservatives.

A proposal to legalize online sports betting has the best chance of passing this year for two reasons. Supporters say it will not require a constitutional change because it can be accomplished by adding it to the current state law governing the Georgia Lottery program.

Sports betting also is being backed by a coalition of Atlanta’s four pro sports teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Atlanta United.

Billy Linville, spokesman for the Georgia Professional Sports Alliance, said the industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and needs the boost sports betting would give to fan interest.

“Our professional sports teams in Georgia generate billions of dollars for our state and thousands of jobs,” he said. “(The teams) have to enhance their engagement with fans or they’ll go elsewhere.”

Backers of casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing also will back pushing those measures. But since they would require a constitutional amendment putting them on the statewide ballot for Georgia voters to decide, they face longer odds.