ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced Monday the state will spend another $125 million to increase staffing at hospitals amid a surge in coronavirus cases that has forced them to turn patients away.
The money will fund another 1,500 health care workers through the beginning of December, Kemp said at a news conference. It comes on top of $500 million the state has previously allocated that is funding 1,300 staff members at 68 hospitals, the governor said.
Kemp also announced he is closing state offices on the Friday before Labor Day to encourage unvaccinated employees to get inoculated against the virus. But he continued his opposition to vaccine or mask mandates, saying he did not think they work and they push people "into a corner."
"You see where mask mandates are causing fights at sporting events and on airplanes and other things," he said. "People know how to deal with the virus."
He cited a now-defunct government study that started in the 1930s and left Black men untreated for syphilis for decades as a source of vaccine hesitancy among African Americans. He said conservative whites in rural parts of the state are also resistant to the vaccines.
"My message to people is: Talk to your doctor, talk to your local pharmacist, talk to whoever you trust that is involved in health care, or your faith leader, about the vaccines," the Republican governor said. "Learn more about them. Learn more about the science, and then make a good decision for yourself."
Kemp's opposition to a vaccine requirement for state workers is a sharp break with states led by Democrats. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced earlier this month that most of Virginia's state workers will have to be vaccinated or agree to regular COVID-19 testing. North Carolina, New York and California have issued similar requirements, and the Biden administration has ordered strict vaccine rules for federal workers.
Georgia's coronavirus case count is soaring, fueled by the much more contagious delta variant among people who have not been vaccinated. Federal officials shut down the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta on Monday, a little more than a month after it reopened, saying the surrounding county far exceeds the definition of a high transmission area.
Many of the hospitals now inundated with coronavirus patients have warned they don't have enough beds and staff to take any more.
Hospitals are short on nurses, respiratory therapists and ICU personnel. The additional staff the state is funding will open up an additional 450 beds at nine regional hospitals, Kemp said.
"I think this is huge," said Anna Adams, a spokesperson for the Georgia Hospital Association. "Those facilities that are in desperate need are probably very much looking forward to having that extra help."
The number of COVID-19 patients in Georgia's hospitals has climbed to nearly 4,500, with more than 88% of the state's ICU beds in use. Many hospitals are diverting patients headed for their emergency rooms and ICUs.
The vast majority of the new patients did not get their shots. Only 41% of Georgia's population is fully vaccinated, well below the national average.
Hospitals are dealing with more patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s than during previous surges — likely a reflection that many older residents have gotten vaccinated, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said Monday. She said the state plans to increase the availability of testing and have testing sites at hospitals to relieve some of the burden on them.
Schools, meanwhile, are struggling to keep classrooms open as exposure to infections forces many students and teachers to quarantine. Ten school districts or charter schools have sent all students home, including Screven County, which announced its decision Monday. Those districts have more than 26,000 students combined, about 1.5% of statewide public school enrollment.
Child deaths remain very rare nationally, even with the delta variant, but some Georgia students have not been spared. WTOC reported Monday that Brandon Marsh, an 18-year-old senior at Tattnall County High School west of Savannah, died of COVID-19 on Aug. 7. The Tattnall district announced new safety measures in response to a spike in cases, including temperature checks, but is not making masks mandatory.
Kemp, who is up for reelection next year, said schools had to "fight through" similar surges last year, and he had no plans to impose any statewide restrictions.