Sunday Reads – March 27, 2022

While some of us are in the throes of March Madness, many are watching the last five days of the Georgia version: the Legislature. It’s been a busy week and there’s a lot to see, so let’s roll.

Working toward healthy solutions

Almost everything we’ve done for the past two pandemic years has required a consideration for health risk. Early on, just leaving the house seemed a little scary until we learned how to mitigate risks of a mysterious virus. However, it’s fair to say that most Georgians were already concerned about the state of health care, long before the rise of Covid and Georgia’s political candidates moved it to the top of their talking points.

The bottom line: Georgia’s health care environment is not good. Last week, we were reminded again that a nationally ranked data scorecard shows Georgia ranks 49th of 51 for health care access and affordability, and 46th overall for health care. A public webinar, sponsored by the League of Women Voters for Coastal Georgia with help from Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, brought together market experts and physicians to break down the challenges for Coastal Georgians and their representatives to solve the deep-rooted problems. To watch the data-filled discussion, here’s the link to the presentation. There’s also a transcription link there if you’d rather scroll through and read.

Health care access bills get scrutiny

Health care measures are plentiful this session, and few are moving without some hurdles. Here’s quick a look at several in their various states of motion.

Mental health care access: The wide-ranging mental health bill stalled out in the state Senate after passing with bipartisan support in the House. Its future is uncertain, but the emotion around it is not. Raucous protestors showed up this week to express worries over governmental overreach, but law enforcement, members of the medical community, teachers and affected family members arrived to strongly support the full scope of the bill. To reiterate a now-common theme: Georgia falls last or close to last nationally in nearly every measure for mental health care and access. A story this week from WABE outlines one of the significant problems: a dearth of providers. Out of 159 counties, 150 have major shortages in parts of the mental health workforce, leaving the work to already burdened educators, first responders, public safety and jails.

Out of 159 Georgia counties, 150 have been identified as having a shortage of mental health providers. Credit: Rural Health Information Hub

Getting the lead out: On a another relevant topic, a Senate committee approved new protections and help for children diagnosed with high levels of lead in their blood. There is no safe level of lead, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The House passed it unanimously March 3 and it awaits consideration by the full Senate. The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Coastal Georgia’s Sen. Ben Watson. And it’s a measure that literally hits home in parts of his district. In a 2020 data analysis by Georgia Health News and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, zip codes 31415, 31401 and 31404 in Savannah and Chatham County were in the top 20 areas in the state for high levels among children. In one, 12% of those tested had high levels; the state average is 2%.

Co-pays and breast cancer diagnostics: Senate Bill 487 appears to finally be moving through the House to a vote after some fits in committee. This measure would treat other breast cancer diagnostic methods like ultrasounds and MRIs the same as a mammogram in co-pay or cost-sharing arrangements through insurance when the tool is used to evaluate an abnormality already suspected from a screening. This could allow subsequent diagnostics to be more affordable for some patients. Coastal Georgia Sen. Sheila McNeill was the original sponsor with Sen. Ben Watson and Sen. Lester Jackson joining.

Maternal mortality: Measures to improve the dismal mortality rate of Georgia mothers within a year of giving birth are starting to move along. Senate Bill 496 would require an autopsy when a woman dies within a year of giving birth with few exceptions. According to the Department of Public Health, 70% of Georgia’s maternal deaths from 2012 to 2016 were preventable. Post-mortem examinations would help researchers work toward a better understanding of the high death rate. Senate Bill 338 would extend Medicaid benefits for women for one year from the birth of a child. Both have passed the Senate and now are under consideration in the House. Sens. Watson and McNeill signed on as co-sponsors for both.

Former Glynn DA throws a punch

Lawyers for former Glynn County District Attorney filed a court motion this week asking a judge to drop two criminal charges against Jackie Johnson. The filing accused the Glynn County Commission of scapegoating Johnson following negative public fallout from the Ahmaud Arbery murder. Among the accusations is that the county hired a local risk management firm to help with messaging and that officials also may have worked to lobby for charges with the state attorney general. Johnson is accused of showing favoritism toward one of Arbery’s convicted killers, Greg McMichael, who had worked as an investigator for the DA’s office. Johnson was defeated in the November 2020 election. The Current’s editor in chief, Margaret Coker, wraps up the new motion and gives context to the claims.

Spaceport authority repeal hits legislative snag

State Rep. Steven Sainz kept his promise to file a bill to terminate the Camden County Spaceport Authority after voters overwhelmingly told the county not to purchase land for the project. Sainz filed the local legislation in the state House, joined by Kingsland Rep. John Corbett, to address concerns that the Camden County Commission would use the authority to circumvent the will of the people. But, as careful readers know, few moves around the 7-year, $10 million Spaceport Camden project have gone smoothly.

Local legislation traditionally must be OK’d by members of the area delegation before they can be considered. State Sen. Sheila McNeill, who represents Camden County and is not seeking re-election, says she will not support dismantling the spaceport authority. When contacted repeatedly for comment on the legislation, neither county manager Steve Howard now county commission chair and spaceport authority member Gary Blount responded. The Current’s Mary Landers wraps up where things stand in this report.

Credit: Georgia Department of Health County Indicator Report for Emerging Counties of Interest, updated March 21.

It’s still out there

HCA Memorial Health celebrated Wednesday for good reason: It was the regional medical center’s first day in 734 days without a Covid patient in treatment. 734 days. Two years.

Covid hasn’t disappeared, it’s just very, very quiet. And now we learn that the Covid-19 variant omicron has a bunch of sub-variants, including BA.2, which is now making the rounds. So far, experts say it’s an overachiever, outstripping the high contagion rate of its elder. However, they say its symptoms aren’t as nasty. All that said, any form of Covid endangers immuno-compromised people like cancer patients or diabetics as well as those who haven’t had a vaccination for Covid-19.

In other coronavirus news, the state House held a final vote to ban mask mandates for Georgia school students, allowing parents to decide if their children should wear masks in class. It passed the Senate some time back so the measure now goes to Gov. Kemp for his signature.

A cautionary note: While we’d all like to think this two-year scourge is in the rear-view mirror, public health stats tell us differently. As Coastal Georgia celebrated St. Patrick’s Day and spring break, the coast’s counties were noted as emerging areas of interest with rising community transmission rates over the past 14 days.

Under review: School library books?

Senate Bill 226 has passed both the state Senate and House in different forms. It sets up a process for parents to challenge the use of specific books in K-12 school libraries and other school materials as “harmful materials” much like the guides proposed in earlier “Parents Bill of Rights” measures. Parents could file a complaint about materials and it would be considered by a principal or designated school official within 10 days. The language will likely change more as it goes to conference.

Speaking of Covid and schools, this recent national study caught our attention: “Violence Against Educators and School Personnel: Crisis During Covid” by the American Psychological Association. Here’s a snapshot: 42% of administrators and 29% of teachers say they’d faced aggressive parents.

Credit: “Violence Against Educators and School Personnel: Crisis During Covid” by the American Psychological Association.

For your second cup: Feeling happy or blue?

If all of this is making you a bit tense, you are not alone. In fact, you’re standing in quite a large crowd. The isolation and division of the Covid time has permanently changed how many view the world. Why are many people dangerously depressed while others are bouncing right back? As it turns out, researchers are stumped, too. Here’s what they know so far.

Let’s be careful out there.

‘Priority’ mental health reforms run into Senate buzzsaw

Critics say bill is too broad, other cite it as a government takeover of treatment, targeted to stop gun owners.

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Child lead protections approved by committee; Senate working on new mental health bill?

Chatham County remains one of top areas for childhood blood lead level cases.

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House committee advances bills aimed at curbing Georgia’s maternal deaths

Measures could help isolate causes of high pregnancy-related death rate among Georgia women.

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Former Brunswick DA claims vendetta by Glynn County officials in Arbery case

Jackie Johnson’s lawyers want charges dropped, claim GBI and FBI investigation clear her of wrongdoing.

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State senator opposes repeal of spaceport authority

Despite landslide vote, McNeill wants to keep authority viable.

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General Assembly passes ban on mask mandates for Georgia students

Backers say parents should make decisions for their children; critics say students may be exposed to harm

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Study: Even after lockdowns eased, pandemic depression persisted across social classes

Nearly a third of all Americans suffered from mental challenges over the past 2 years.

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Q&A: Covid variant BA.2. Will it cause new wave of infections?

Immunologists explain ‘stealth variant’ and its potential to cause more illness.

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Susan Catron is managing editor for The Current GA. She has more than two decades of experience in Georgia newspapers. Susan served as executive editor of the Savannah Morning News for nearly 15 years,...