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Public health experts say state leaders, including Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, should push for more support for workers.

ATLANTA -- The state’s Department of Public Health has told its employees – already stretched from pandemic duty — that they can’t take annual leave or vacation until at least April.

In a Jan. 8 memo obtained by Georgia Health News, the state agency described a three-month moratorium on taking leave due to the vaccination rollout.

“To support this most critical effort, we need all hands-on-deck," the memo said. "To that end, effective Monday, January 11, we are implementing a 3-month moratorium on annual leave for all employees. You may be asked to return to the office, become temporarily re-deployed to a local district office to assist in some capacity, and/or even work over weekends.

“While this moratorium is scheduled to end Friday, April 16, please understand that it may end sooner or be extended longer depending on the need.’’

For 11 months, Public Health’s work force has been pressed hard in fighting COVID-19. New duties have been added to employees’ normal workload, including testing for the virus and implementing the vaccination program.

Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist who publishes a report tracking COVID in the state, says she has heard “beleaguered accounts from public health professionals up and down the ranks about how they’re overworked, underfunded and understaffed.’’

At the same time, Gov. Brian Kemp’s basically flat budget request for Public Health has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and the media.

Kemp proposed only a minuscule increase in the public health budget for the next fiscal year: about $900,000, or 3/10 of 1%, the AJC reported recently. None of the new money addresses the pandemic.

It’s not uncommon for private employers to block out periods of time for no vacation during busy seasons, according to Julie Smith, a local human resources expert. But Public Health’s statement in the memo that workers can’t accrue more than 360 hours of annual leave during this time is unusual, said Smith, who is president and CEO of Custom Human Resource Solutions.

Smith said she appreciates the need for maintaining a full staff during the crucial vaccination rollout. Still, she said, the memo appeared not to give employees advance warning and could deal a financial blow to workers who already had scheduled vacations during this time. They could lose money if they’ve paid to book travel and now can’t go, she said.

“Employees may see they’re losing something they’re entitled to,’’ Smith said. “It may cause morale issues.’’

In a Jan. 12 news conference, Kemp said the agency is adequately funded to respond to the pandemic through testing and vaccinations.

“We have the bandwidth to do what we need to do,” Kemp said. “We will use every resource, human and financial.”

House lawmakers, though, are adding funding for the mid-year Public Health budget. It includes $18 million for a new public health surveillance system to help measure the state’s progress in vaccinating Georgians against the virus.

Another $286,000 is proposed to allow Public Health to hire a chief medical officer, a deputy commissioner and a chief data officer to help the agency through the pandemic “as well as provide ongoing public health leadership,” according to a budget document. And $15.4 million would go toward the agency’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides HIV/AIDS medications to low-income Georgians who are uninsured or underinsured.

As important as these additions are, they don’t appear to do much to help rank-and-file health workers.

With the hiring of contact tracers and other relevant COVID-19 positions, the Public Health work force has increased by 150%, from 980 employees as of April 30 to 2,524 employees as of December 30.

Salaried employees considered essential to the state’s fight against the pandemic are eligible for compensatory time based on state policy, Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said.

But asked about the annual leave policy, Harry Heiman, a public health expert at Georgia State University, said state leaders, including Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, should push for more support for workers.

“At a time when Dr. Toomey should be strongly advocating for her colleagues and the need for long-term investments in public health, she is once again turning to her work force to do more with less,” Heiman said. “Rather than asking the public health work force, which is already demoralized and overworked, to do more, we need our political and public health leaders to rise up to the moment and match resources to the compelling needs.’’

Schmidtke added that “bringing in reinforcements would help a lot.’’

“I would also add that public health professionals do not go into this field to get rich — it is not a well-paying job or career field,’’ she said. “And I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a raise in recognition of their service and dedication this year than public health professionals. I can imagine it is incredibly demoralizing to the public health work force to know that help is not on the way

“If there was ever a time to increase funding for public health, it’s during a pandemic.’’

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Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News.

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