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Atlanta physician: Kemp's plan 'recipe for disaster'
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ATLANTA — Georgia reported 145 COVID-related deaths Tuesday, the state’s highest single-day total recorded since the pandemic began.

More than 9,000 new infections were also reported, along with 435 new hospitalizations. The overall number of COVID hospitalizations currently has hit 5,700, continuing its steady, record-breaking climb.

These grim statistics coincide with frustrating waits for Georgia seniors and others who need COVID vaccinations. Georgia had the worst vaccination rate in the nation as of Monday, according to CDC data, though state officials pushed back against the federal agency’s figures.

The CDC statistics Tuesday showed that Georgia’s rate had improved to 1,607 doses administered per 100,000, up from 1,346 on Monday. The state rate is now better than those of Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama.

Numerous Public Health departments this week have experienced a flood of calls and emails asking for appointments to get shots. Medical providers, too, are feeling the tremendous demand.

On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp opened vaccinations to seniors, firefighters, law enforcement officers and first responders as supply is available. They join health care workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities in the initial target group.

Georgia has about 1.3 million residents 65 and older.

The death total reported Tuesday surpassed the previous high of 129 set in August, according to Department of Public Health figures.

“We are in a true crisis,’’ Harry Heiman, a Georgia State University public health expert, said. “Not only are we seeing surging COVID cases and hospitalizations, but also, now the predicted and predictable surge in deaths. The tragedy is that much of this was preventable.’’

He called on state officials to take stronger steps to reduce spread in high-risk settings like bars, nightclubs, and indoor restaurants.

“We must also address the higher risk of infection with school re-opening and the need to have policies in place mandating masks and ensuring appropriate case identification, contact tracing and quarantine in the event of COVID cases in schools,’’ Heiman said.

Kemp has so far resisted taking further steps to fight the surge, and while encouraging mask use, has declined to make it a requirement.

Kemp, in a Tuesday news conference, said the state has made “great progress’’ on vaccinations, but noted that the supply of vaccine is limited. Georgia gets about 120,000 doses a week, and about 40,000 of them go to long-term care facilities.

The governor sharply warned large medical providers not to hold back second doses of vaccine. Both COVID vaccines being used in this country — one made by Pfizer and the other by Moderna — require two doses.

“We expect [providers] to be administering those doses quickly and as safely as possible,’’ he said. If that does not happen, Kemp said, the state will take possession of those vials.

Phone lines will be busy, and websites will crash, Kemp said.

“I know [Georgians] are frustrated. I am, too, in many ways,” the governor added.

The state Public Health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, said the official reporting on vaccination numbers has been hampered by a technical problem between the agency’s immunization system and the CDC system. She added that the state vaccination registry can be unwieldy for medical providers.

Hospital officials told GHN on Monday that facilities were having trouble inputting the vaccine data.

Ryan Loke, a health policy adviser to Kemp, said he questioned the latest CDC data, asserting that the state has administered tens of thousands more doses than the federal agency reported.

To speed vaccine distribution, the state is planning regional mass vaccination events. And Kemp discussed reaching out to the private sector for help in getting people vaccinated.

Also Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government will no longer hold back coronavirus vaccine doses it has kept in reserve. And HHS is asking states to open vaccinations to people 65 and older and people with chronic conditions who are at higher risk of severe disease.

Other elements of the plan include giving states the next two weeks to prove they really need all of the vaccine doses they’ve been getting — or risk receiving fewer in the future as part of a redistribution move.

Asked about this two-week window, Kemp said the state was making substantial progress on the vaccine reporting lag. He also noted that the HHS guidance could change with the new Biden administration coming to power next week.

Meanwhile, Georgia has climbed into the top 10 states in per capita COVID cases over the past week, with 90 per 100,000 population, according to the New York Times.

“Cases, hospitalizations, and ICU occupancy are at record highs, with no sign of abatement,’’ Dr. Melanie Thompson, an Atlanta physician, said. “Staff are exhausted, and insufficient for the coming onslaught.

“We can be sure that this is not the worst of what we will see, especially as health systems buckle. The governor’s plan to not do anything differently is a recipe for disaster, and we are getting a taste of that today.’’

Albany entertainment complex planning for return of live performances
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ALBANY — When Josh Turner performed his hits “Hometown Girl” and “Your Man,” it was during the last regularly scheduled show inside the Albany Civic Center.

That was on what seemed a lifetime ago ... March 19, 2020.

Since then, there have been some outdoor movies in the parking lot of the venue, high school graduation ceremonies, a recent tipoff basketball tournament for Dougherty County schools and most recently early voting in the election runoff during December.

But under current circumstances, it is likely to be well into 2021 before something approaching regular operations resume at the civic center.

The Casting Crowns’ “Only Jesus Tour” performance has been rescheduled from April 10 to Oct. 29, and “The Price is Right Live” show from April 22 to Nov. 3 of this year.

That is the time frame that the Flint River Entertainment Center, which includes the civic center, the Albany Municipal Auditorium and the Veterans Park Amphitheatre, is currently anticipating for live indoor shows, said Josh Small, the venue’s general manager.

“We’re pretty much doing like everybody else, watching how the pandemic is going and how vaccinations go,” he said. “We’re still in that wait-and-see mode.”

Since the Thanksgiving holiday, much of the country has experienced a spike in cases of the novel coronavirus and associated increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19. The pandemic has led to the cancellation or rescheduling of numerous events throughout the nation, and live concerts and floor shows in arenas were among the earliest and longest-lasting casualties on that front.

“As the vaccinations take hold and hopefully the (transmission) rate starts to drop, we’ll look at some live events,” Small said.

In the interim, the civic center has provided some drive-in movie events. When warmer weather returns other outdoor events could be forthcoming.

“We’re evaluating some different opportunities,” Small said. “It’s a little bit difficult with the number of COVID cases and the weather not being good. We’re looking at some events we can do in the next couple of months.”

The staff has cut down on spending, by such means as reducing utility costs, to save money during the time of dried-up revenue, Small said. Through the city of Albany, it received some assistance through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that helped provide protective gear such as plastic shields and hand sanitizer to comply with Gov. Brian Kemp’s coronavirus measures.

Meanwhile the business of maintenance and planning continues.

“The venues have some age on them, but they have to be kept up so we can be ready to go,” Small said. “Every day, we’re still looking and evaluating on different shows we can bring. As soon as we can bring crowds back in, we have a game plan in place for when that time comes.”

Billy Mathis to maintain Lee Commission chairmanship
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Billy Mathis

LEESBURG – Members of the Lee County Commission kicked off 2021 by selecting Billy Mathis as chairman for the coming year and John Wheaton as vice chairman during the board’s meeting Tuesday.

Mike Talley, a stormwater engineer, presented a report to the commission that dominated the first meeting of that body in 2021.

In his report, Talley explained the differences between the two major flood threats facing the residents of Lee County and the opportunity to use GIS mapping to potentially minimize future damages.

With two creeks and one of the nation’s most unrestricted river systems, riverine flooding is an acknowledged concern. However, a secondary concern comes from no-outlet lows, which are primarily created by the large number of sinkholes and lime sink depressions in the area.

“What I’m trying to find out is is there a way to do two things,” Talley said. “We want to make sure the citizens of Lee County are protected from buying property that they should not, or at least have the information to manage their risk to determine that decision. And second, is there something we should do to better establish what is a reasonable flood elevation is for a location in a subdivision?”

Talley went on to explain how current technology allows a better determination of a site’s risk level. He explained that the county now has the ability to go beyond the data available on the current FEMA maps and better access the risk of flooding on these non-riverine sites. The commission agreed that it was in the county’s best interest to have Talley conduct further study as to how these areas might be identified and the associated risks of future development.

A public hearing was held during the meeting regarding a request by Griffith Farms to rezone 101 acres from R-1 (single-family residence) to AG (agricultural district). A family representative explained that all family members now had homestead sites and this initial land was no longer needed for that purpose. No other comments were made during this initial hearing.

Johnny Barthlien, Ed Duffy, Troy Golden and George Walls were re-appointed to the Lee County Utilities Authority for one-year terms running through Jan. 31, 2022. Marion Whitlock was appointed to a two-year term on the Housing Task Force of Southwest Georgia. Chad Arnold and Darrell Finnicum were appointed to the Planning Commission, filling two vacancies that expire Jan. 31, 2025.

Considerations to approve bids related to the purchase of a firetruck, uniforms and turn-out gear for fire and EMS uniforms, as well as an audit agreement for phone services, were approved. Resolutions to certify abandonment for a portion of Grey Moss Rd, Jones Lane, and Wingate Lane were adopted.

Consideration to ratify the third amendment to the Lee County Hospital Memorandum of Understanding, extending it until Dec. 31, 2022, carried.

Albany-based SOWEGA Council on Aging to hear feedback during February virtual meeting
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ALBANY — Through the 10 months since the closing of its centers the SOWEGA Council on Aging has continued providing services for seniors, and next month it will host a forum for learning what else it can do through the pandemic and moving forward.

The Feb. 28 virtual meeting will focus on faith and nonprofit groups for comments about programs and services in the 14 counties covered.

“Really, this is something we’ve held annually,” Izzy Sadler, the SOWEGA council’s executive director, said. “In the past, we held it in person. We felt this was the safest way to do it. People (also) don’t have to worry about traveling.”

The virtual meeting will include a presentation by the Georgia Department of Human Services and SOWEGA Council on Aging, as well as a period for questions and comments.

“The reason we invited the church leaders and nonprofit leaders and the congregants and members is we want them to learn about the programs we offer they can benefit from and ways we can probably provide benefits in the community,” Sadler said. “It’s just a big meeting to try to inform and try to even identify some of the needs in the area.”

Since the centers were closed in March 2020, the number of area residents seeking to participate in the organization’s programs has grown. The Council on Aging has continued exercise programs both online and some in-person outdoor offerings, such as chair yoga and chair exercise sessions that can be viewed online for participants who can’t make it out of the house. Phone Bingo also has been popular.

Instead of the congregant lunches at the centers, clients have been able to pick up meals at area restaurants and call in for group chats on the phone with friends regularly encountered on-site. New restaurants are coming onboard in each of the 14 counties, Sadler said.

Individuals who provide home care to relatives can have a caregiver come in to watch a loved one while they go out to take care of business or have some “me time” outside the home.

Recently the organization received 100 referrals in a single month and is working quickly through another 69 referrals that have come in, Sadler said, emphasizing the need in the community.

“Prior to COID, we didn’t take that many referrals in a month,” she said. “We might (have had) one or two in a month. We’re really reaching out to people who are isolated, who are alone. That’s really growing by the month.”

Registration for the 10:30 a.m. Feb. 28 session is required by visiting https://www.eventbrite.com/e/faith-and-nonprofit-meeting-dougherty-county-tickets-135702254095.