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Northwest Georgia health care leaders urge action to stem COVID-19 spread, Georgia surpasses 20,000 deaths

Hamilton Medical Center CEO Jeff Myers

Healthcare leaders in Northwest Georgia joined voices in a letter to urge people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and take precautions to stem the spread of the virus.

The letter came Friday as the number of Georgians who have died from COVID-19 stepped over a grim milestone.

That number now surpasses 20,000. As of 3 p.m. Friday, there have been 20,041 confirmed COVID deaths in Georgia since the pandemic began.

“We need your help like never before. The pandemic — its current surge driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant — continues to spread throughout Northwest Georgia and is quickly becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Most new cases, hospitalizations and people in our critical care units on ventilators and advanced oxygen support are unvaccinated,” the letter stated.

The letter was released Friday and signed by Georgia Department of Public Health’s Dr. Gary Voccio and Dr. Zachary Taylor, AdventHealth’s Southeast Region CEO Mike Murrill, Floyd Health System’s CEO Kurt Stuenkel, Hamilton Medical Center’s CEO Jeff Myers, Harbin Clinic’s CEO Kenna Stock, Piedmont Cartersville Medical Center’s CEO Chris Mosley and Redmond Regional Medical Center’s CEO John Quinlivan.

“COVID-19 vaccination is our best tool for reducing the overwhelming strain on our health care system, health care providers and EMS personnel,” the letter stated.

With only 35% of Northwest Georgia fully vaccinated they said the unvaccinated are highly vulnerable to the virus.

“While a few municipalities have declared a state of emergency, if you look across the regional health care landscape, there is no mistaking that we are experiencing a public health crisis,” the letter stated.

Since the beginning of July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased dramatically, straining hospitals. A rise in deaths, which have lagged behind significant hospitalization rates by a few weeks “are increasing significantly, leaving families broken and torn apart and frontline workers physically and emotionally exhausted.”

“Cases and hospitalizations among school-aged children have increased to levels not yet seen in the pandemic,” the letter states. “We are seeing the highest number of weekly outbreaks in our schools since the pandemic began. This is preventable because many in this group are eligible for vaccination.”

Studies of over 4.5 million fully vaccinated Georgians show that the fully vaccinated are at low risk of becoming infected and at almost no risk of being hospitalized or dying.

Most cases of fully vaccinated people contracting COVID-19 have happened, but have been fewer and milder cases.

They asked that people seeking COVID-19 testing not go to hospital emergency rooms or call EMS unless a person is experiencing urgent symptoms like severe respiratory distress, stroke symptoms or trauma.

“Please help us keep our hospital emergency departments open so we can treat medical emergencies,” the letter states.

COVID-19 testing is currently available at different sites across Northwest Georgia. Information about these facilities, including address and hours of operation, can be found at www.DPH.Georgia.gov and www.NGHD.org. Testing is also available at most urgent care, primary care and pharmacy locations.

“Let’s work together to stop the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. We strongly urge everyone age 12 and older to get vaccinated, wear a mask in public settings where social distancing is not possible and wash their hands frequently,” the letter stated. “The vaccines work. They are safe and they prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death. If you haven’t been vaccinated, please protect yourself, your loved ones and your community by doing so.”

Rosie the Riveter Garden to be rededicated on Monday afternoon

On Monday afternoon, Rome residents will gather at the Town Green to rededicate a garden. But it’s not just any garden. This one honors the women who helped win a war.

The event is called “Ring a Bell for Rosie” and its purpose is two-fold. It will recognize local Rosie the Riveters and it will also remember Rosies who are no longer with us.

Rosie the Riveter is a cultural icon of the United States, representing the American women who worked in factories during World War II, many of whom worked in the manufacturing plants that produced munitions and war supplies. These women sometimes took entirely new jobs replacing the male workers who were in the military.

Selena Tilly, director of the Rome History Center, said the Rosie Garden was moved from its previous location at the Museum of Flight to its new location behind the Rome Area History Center and just outside the Forum River Center.

“We moved it at the request of the Rome Rosie the Riveter Club,” she said. “It’s just outside the back of the history center so when we do tours of the museum we take visitors outside and show them the kiosk and the garden and explain how important Rosie the Riveters were.”

Tilly said Rosies’ roles during WWII were basically to fill the positions formerly held by men who were now fighting in the war. Women now took jobs in the manufacturing industry riveting airplanes and ships, she said. Others rolled bandages for medics on the front lines.

“You also had Rosies who worked here at Battey State Hospital who took care of sick and injured soldiers,” Tilly said. “They did a number of different jobs. One Rosie in Rome was a codebreaker. Her job was to break enemy codes during the war. If it hadn’t been for the Rosies the war might have turned out a lot differently.”

“They were the reason we had ammunition, ships, tanks and airplanes,” she added. “They were the backbone of war effort production. We owe the Rosies a lot. We really do.”

The Ring a Bell for Rosie dedication will take place Monday starting at 1 p.m. at the Rosie Garden behind the Rome Area History Center and in front of the Forum River Center. The public is invited to attend.

D’Arcy Conklin, a student at Model Elementary School

County, city focusing on current SPLOST projects before moving on to next package

While local school systems begin planning their next education local option sales tax packages, both Rome and Floyd County officials are focusing on their current projects before planning for the next SPLOST package.

County Manager Jamie McCord speculated that the next one might be in 2022 or 2023. However, he said 2022 might be cutting it too close.

“We still have a couple of 2013 projects with the airport and economic development,” he said. “Those are underway... but we’ve started to talk about it and will continue to talk about it.”

Collections for the 2017 SPLOST didn’t begin until April 2019. The county manager said they’re just barely through that SPLOST collection, which is expected to continue through 2024.

Moving into 2022, the county will be focusing on the Agricultural Center, which is marked for $8 million, as well as Historic Courthouse renovations, which are budgeted for $5 million.

They had planned to move forward with 911 Center upgrades but Public Safety Division Director John Blalock and 911 Director Sommer Robinson said they want to wait until COVID-19 is less of an issue.

City Manager Sammy Rich said the city has been looking at putting together some infrastructure plans for the next SPLOST, but they haven’t decided on anything yet.

“I know (city) commissioners are getting similar questions and comments,” Rich said. “We’ve been having several different conversations on the next SPLOST ... it’s just a matter of when.”

In 2022, the city manager said they’ll be focusing on the River District Streetscape project, which is budgeted for $2 million, as well as the secondary access road near East Central Elementary, which is budgeted for $395,000.

City officials also plan to work on the ECO Center basement expansion, as well as a boat house outside of the center on the Oostanaula River.

Rich said he’s also hoping that once they sort out American Rescue Plan Act funds, they could put some of that money toward infrastructure and other projects to benefit the city.

When it comes time to plan the next SPLOST and ELOST, local government officials will meet with the school system superintendents to figure out what everyone has planned. They’ll then create citizens committees to put together lists and decide what will be on the ballot for the election, whether it’s a general election or municipal election.

General Assembly expected to take up state-level Earned Income Tax Credit

ATLANTA — With Georgia’s finances in better shape than last year at this time, the General Assembly is expected to consider tax relief this winter aimed at low- and middle-income Georgia families.

House Bill 510, which was introduced last February, would provide a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit modeled after a federal tax credit that has been around since 1975.

A state EITC would help prop up the bottom lines of working Georgians whose livelihoods were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, said Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens, one of the bill’s cosponsors.

“The other side believes cutting government checks is the answer,” said Stephens, R-Savannah. “We believe in incentivizing those people who will go out and work to continue to work.”

Democrats as well as Republicans back the legislation. Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, is also among its cosponsors.

The measure also enjoys public support. A statewide poll released last month by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found nearly 70% approval for using some of Georgia’s share of federal COVID-19 relief funds to create a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit.

Danny Kanso, a senior policy analyst with the institute, said President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill making its way through Congress will provide plenty of money for water and sewer improvements and expanding broadband in Georgia.

That means the $4.8 billion the state will be receiving from the American Rescue Plan Congress passed last March should be available for the proposed tax credit, he said. The credit would cost the state about $130 million a year, according to the institute’s calculations.

“It would benefit over a million kids in Georgia and their families,” Kanso said. “In some rural counties, above 50% of the families are eligible. That’s a strong motivator for rural lawmakers.”

Under House Bill 510, Georgians would qualify for the state-level EITC if they are eligible to receive the federal tax credit. The state-level credit would equal 10% of what qualified taxpayers receive from the federal credit.

Kanso said nearly 30 states already have a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit, including South Carolina and other heavily Republican states.

Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said the budget surplus the state has built up despite the economic ravages of the pandemic means the General Assembly can afford a state-level EITC.

“Georgia’s good fiscal stewardship, especially during the pandemic, has put it in a good position to provide relief to Georgia taxpayers,” Wingfield said. “We expect a variety of strong proposals to do just that.”

Stephens said he expects legislative Republicans to push several tax-relief proposals during the 2022 legislative session, including a further rollback of Georgia’s income tax rate. Lawmakers reduced the rate from 6% in 2018 to 5.75% but have yet to deliver a promised second round of tax cutting, citing the effects of the pandemic on the state’s finances.

Stephens said he’d like to see the state income tax rate reduced to 5.5% or less.

“We need to cut back our income tax to compete with surrounding states, particularly North Carolina,” he said.

Besides cutting Georgia’s income tax rate and providing a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit, Stephens said lawmakers also may consider exempting retired veterans from state income taxes.