Georgia’s mask and vaccine drama in full view at Athens City Hall

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Athens-Clarke County joined Savannah and Atlanta in reinstating COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, August 4 amid growing concerns over the delta variant and overdue vaccination rates. The order went into effect the next day.

The unified city and county government has separately approved a vaccination mandate for officials, possibly making it the first county in the state to do so, according to the Georgia County Commissioners Association.

“In addition to the masking requirement, we are in talks about an additional incentive for vaccination,” said Kelly Girtz, Mayor of Athens-Clarke County. “As much as one would like for ideal human behavior, if the combination of carrots and sticks is helpful in providing a safe environment, then we will work to handle them successfully.”

Girtz said details of those incentives would be made public within a week.

The mayor cited rising infection and hospitalization rates as calling for the measure – cases have more than increased tenfold in the past six weeks and the area’s intensive care beds are over 90% full .

The mask order is triggered when the county reports 100 cases per 100,000 population in one week. Masks will no longer be mandatory if cases fall below this level, or if at least 80% of the population is vaccinated.

In the seven days leading up to the meeting, the average number of cases in Clarke County was 147.28 per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Businesses can opt out by posting a notice at the door, but in all other public buildings masks will be the rule. Violators will first receive a warning and the option to disguise themselves, and then they could be fined up to $ 25 for a first offense and up to $ 50 for subsequent offenses.

Athens resident John Montarella was among dozens of mostly unmasked people who crowded into the committee’s chambers on Tuesday evening. He told the commission he was leaving the county in disgust for some of their actions, including approving a government-sanctioned temporary homeless settlement as well as the mask and vaccine warrants.

“George Orwell said the reason is not statistical,” he said. “For anyone out there who is sitting at home and thinks this is crazy, like masking and forced vaccinations, it is, you are not alone. It makes no sense to hide children, who are not affected by this disease. It is literal and disgusting madness. I think this is a sign of a sick society that you should cover the faces of children who are literally learning to read the faces of other humans and to interact.

“You are a little tyrant,” Montarella shouted at Girtz as he left the podium.

Immediately after Montarella’s comments, Commissioner Russell Edwards entered the bedroom with a large box of masks and offered them to the public. He was greeted with laughter and calls of “No thanks, it’s okay.” “

“Who cares about others,” one masked person said sarcastically.

Rising tensions

Much to the dismay of healthcare professionals, masks and vaccines have become a cultural battleground, and with many Georgian K-12 students already back in class and the rest soon to be back, schools have so far seen the fiercest fighting.

On August 3, schools in Fulton County announced that they would adopt a policy similar to that in Athens-Clarke County, requiring masks in schools in cities where the infection exceeds 100 cases per 100,000 population. .

Some parents have expressed frustration with the move, in part because it is confusing, said State Senator Michelle Au, a doctor and Democrat whose district includes part of Fulton County.

“It’s not a mandate, first of all, it’s like an evolving set of guidelines,” she said. “The problem I’ve heard from a lot of people is that the mask guidelines are confusing because they kind of went back and forth, in people’s perception, over and over again. This, I think, is even more confusing than that, because it’s all based on local data. I think Fulton’s rules are based on the number of cases per municipality which is confusing because even within the same school system you might have schools with several different masking guidelines. “

The Athens-Clarke County policy does not share this flaw as it spans the entire county, but mask policies should be proactive rather than reactive, Au said.

“The purpose of masking is prophylactic,” she said. “If you wait until the number of cases is high enough to warrant masking, you are already late.”

Districts imposing mask warrants also face criticism from groups opposed to any mandatory COVID-19 restrictions.

Muscogee County schools on the Alabama line updated their policy to require masks on July 28 ahead of the new school year, citing the increased number of cases and guidelines from the CDC.

It was the day after the CDC released new guidelines that even vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas with high infection rates, including almost all of Georgia.

A group called Moms Against the Mandatory Masking of Our Children sent an email calling on parents to keep their children at home or send them to school and punish them if they didn’t mask themselves.

“Do whatever you want, but we won’t comply,” the email read. “There isn’t a solution for all of us, but we have options since our school district refuses to give us any.”

Reluctance to vaccination

In Georgia, 14.3% of people 18 and over are reluctant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, up from around 10.8% nationally, according to the U.S. census The data.

This reluctance was manifested at Tuesday’s meeting when two employees urged the commission not to give them vaccines. The county employs over 1,700 people.

COVID-19 vaccines have gone through all stages of clinical trials and have been shown to be safe, according to the CDC. Nearly 165 million Americans were fully immunized on Monday and serious side effects were extremely rare. People who have been vaccinated can rarely get COVID-19, but they are much less likely to develop severe symptoms.

Marilyn Emerson said her department was already understaffed and that she would leave if she was forced to get the vaccine.

“You cannot cancel a vaccine. Is the county prepared to compensate employees when they demand that employees take something that doesn’t have science and hard data to prove it won’t hurt us ten years from now, or that won’t that change our current state of health? You don’t know what that will do to a woman’s fertility. You don’t know what that will do to a man’s fertility.

Experts say there is no evidence that a vaccine, including for COVID-19, has anything to do with female or male fertility issues.

Pregnant or recently pregnant women are at greater risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. The CDC says pregnant women can be vaccinated and urges them to speak to their doctor if they have any concerns.

Athens-Clarke County is expected to begin its vaccination mandate by September 1.

Masks down, suitcases up

The statewide case count continued its upward trajectory on August 5, with a weekly moving average of 2,770 cases compared to 306 the month before. There have been 945,888 confirmed cases in Georgia and 18,764 confirmed deaths as well as 2,971 probable deaths.

Athens’ tenure makes sense given local conditions, said Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, associate professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health. In most cases, the warrants themselves are effective without having to put a lot of effort into their implementation.

“I hope people will adapt voluntarily, because it’s one thing to have a mandate, but its enforceability is also important,” he said. “I think when there is a warrant, the majority of Americans voluntarily comply with the warrant without needing to involve the police or anything else.”

Experts agree that vaccines are safe and effective and that efforts like masking and crowd avoidance will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated, but many remain skeptical of safety measures.

When people left City Hall after last week’s meeting, they found themselves in the heart of downtown Athens, where heavy basses echoed through bars and clubs as hundreds of people, almost all without masks, wandered the streets and lined up to dance and drink. A bouncer outside one of the clubs said the crowds were pretty typical for a Tuesday night.

The University of Georgia is preparing to begin its new semester on August 18. The mandate will not apply to buildings on campus – as a state agency, the university is subject to the Georgia Board of Regents, which highly recommend masks, but does not require them.

Young people usually only suffer from mild symptoms of COVID-19, but some develop serious complications, and health experts fear that unmasked students in schools and colleges could spread the disease to more vulnerable populations, d ‘especially since research suggests that patients with the delta variant spread the more dangerous version of the disease more easily.

Encouraging young people to get vaccinated will be key to reducing the number of cases, said microbiologist Amber Schmidtke.

“My heart goes out to the UGA professors who are putting a lot of risk on the table just to do their jobs right now,” she said. “We’ll have to see what happens, especially with young people. The pandemic ends with them. By vaccinating them and stopping transmission in 18-29 year olds, that’s how we’re ending this thing. “

Gov. Brian Kemp has always called on Georgians to enforce security measures, including vaccinations, but he opposed any calls to impose warrants for masks or vaccines, saying the state had no to impose such measures.

This means the Georgians will have to take security seriously before anything improves, Schmidtke said.

“I can’t believe we have to keep saying this, but this thing is real, and delta is an almost different virus than the one we dealt with last year,” she said. “It is important that everyone takes this seriously and does the job of limiting the transmission. “

This article was originally published in the Recorder Georgia.


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