AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Georgia governor, Brian Kemp, joins Brad Means on The Means Report to give an update on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brad Means: We are going to begin, though, with a man who has made himself available 24/7 just about since this crisis broke, and we appreciate that. He’s the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, talking to us about how he and his team are responding to this pandemic. Governor Kemp, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. I want to lead off with something that’s made big news lately, and that’s with the anticipated peak of the virus coming up in a few weeks in Georgia. You’ve taken a big step to make sure that we have enough staffing in our healthcare facilities across the state. Tell us about that.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Thanks for having me on, Brad. Yeah, we’ve been working really hard on our surge capacity, not only from a bed standpoint, hospital bed standpoint, but also our staffing as well. We are standing up a new facility at the Georgia World Congress Center that’ll be 200 additional hospital beds. We’ve been working with a lot of our CEOs in other hospitals around the state to squeeze more beds out of existing facilities, stand up some shuttered facilities, so I feel good about that. The next piece is really staffing for the surge, you know, no matter what that looks like. Obviously with many of our healthcare workers who, by the way, are doing an incredible job every day, working tirelessly during all this, but some of them, obviously, are catching the coronavirus and unable to work. We’ve gotta be able to fill the gap, so we’ve signed a contract with a staffing company to bring in 570 healthcare workers to help with the surge, and help our folks that are on the front lines right now.
Brad Means: Governor Kemp, when we think about life after that peak, is it too soon to start talking about when life in Georgia could return to normal, and since the peak is on May 1st, could we start to ease restrictions during the month of May?
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, I think for me, it’s too soon to really focus on that. I think it’s fine to talk about it. My focus is on our surge bed capacity, staffing, ramping up testing, also our long-term care facilities. That has been an issue, not only in Georgia, but around the country, so that is my focus each and every day, but look, Georgians want hope, and I do too, and I appreciate our President being hopeful on the economic viability of this country and this state coming back. Like the country, this state was as good as it’s ever been. We can get it back there. We just gotta be in a position from a healthcare standpoint that it’s safe to do that, and for me I’m hoping that’s sooner rather than later, but I think to speculate on a date right now would be a little bit too early.
Brad Means: I did want to ask you about our long-term care facilities, Governor. We’ve had a couple here in Augusta that have been hit hard by the coronavirus, nearly 70 cases at one of them. What can you say about what the state is doing to keep those facilities and the people safe?
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, many of these long-term care facilities, the nursing homes, hospice facilities, and others have been hit hard, not only in Georgia, but around the country. It’s a tough deal, it’s devastating for many of the patients that they have. They’re unusually more susceptible to this COVID-19 than even the flu, as bad as that gets on that type population, but we’ve been working on this for over a month now. As you know, General Carden has just dozens of teams that are going out to these facilities. We’ve been to the CSRA, helping clean facilities, also train on infectious disease control. Matter of fact, Brad, this may not even be a known fact yet, but we actually have 15 National Guardsmen and women that will be coming down there tomorrow to do that process again, to help those long-term care facilities, and also bring a shipment of personal protective equipment that I know is so sorely needed in the area.
Brad Means: So they’ll be coming to Augusta, Governor?
Gov. Brian Kemp: They’re coming tomorrow, yes, sir.
Brad Means: Why, that is wonderful news, and I know it’s welcome news for those people who are in those facilities and their families. Do you think you’ll have to extend the shelter in place again? I know you said you really don’t want to look too far in the future, but is that something you’ve considered, and how realistic is that?
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, I really haven’t considered that. What I would tell people is to look, what we’re doing is working. Let’s hunker down for another week or so. Let’s see where the data goes, and what our hospital bed capacity is, and see if we can learn more about when our surge and when our peak’s gonna be and what that looks like. The model, while the date’s moving out, the model’s getting better from a bed capacity standpoint, so that is good news, but we also have to continue to look for that day when we could come back, and I think it’s prudent for the private sector and small business owners to start thinking about that and say what does that look like for my place of business? How do I keep my employees safe and my customers safe? There’s a lot of great businesses that are doing some innovative things right now. The ones that are not open need to be thinking about that and then we’ll have more information. I know the President’s talking a lot about that. He’ll have information coming out maybe as early as today, and then we’ll continue to monitor that. I think the thing that people gotta be cognizant of in Georgia, Brad, is that our curve, our peak date is later than what we’ve seen in other states, so we’re running a little bit behind, if you will, which is a good thing. It’s allowed us to have been able to prepare, but it’s also frustrating for people that want to go back to work, and believe you me, I want to get people back to work.
Brad Means: Take a moment, if you will please, Governor Kemp, and tell everybody why you’re leaving the parks and beaches in Georgia open, and how that still fits into your shelter in place orders.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Yeah, look, it’s unfortunate that a lot of people just kinda went overboard on that, if you will, in some regards. You know, Dr. Toomey’s recommendation to me, and the public health officials’ recommendations were look, places where people are gathering for long periods of time, it makes them more susceptible to the virus. You saw that on cruise ships. You know, that was the concern I had with dine-in restaurants, with fitness clubs and gyms, and things of that nature, where people go somewhere and they’re there for a long time, and when you have to shelter in place and close down those type businesses, you need an outlet for people to continue to practice good mental health and physical health, and even Dr. Toomey, you know, she said look, I go to Piedmont Park in Atlanta and take my dog for a walk to get outside, relieve some stress, and get a little exercise, and people can do that in a very safe way. They can practice social distancing, and that’s a good thing, so that’s why I left the state parks open, and that’s why I reopened beaches, but Brad, your listeners need to know we didn’t open the beaches back up for Spring Break or early summer vacation. We opened them back up so people can go out and get some exercise. they can get a walk in, can get a run in, walk their pets let their kids have some fun, but keep moving, do your social distancing, not throw out the coolers and the tents and the beach towels. We’re not allowing that, so there’s a lot of misconception out there right now on that, but things have worked very well. We’ve been monitoring all those, even through the busy Easter weekend and we had just no problems whatsoever.
Brad Means: Governor Kemp, we’re gonna move our primary again. It’s now June 9th. How do you feel about that, and how do you feel about the security of absentee ballots and mail in ballots? This used to be what you did as Secretary of State. Some people don’t trust that system.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, I know that Secretary Raffensperger, that’s in his court now. As you know I did that job for a long time, and I certainly always appreciated Governor Deal realizing that that was a constitutional office, and that it was my job as Secretary of State then, just like it’s Secretary Raffensperger’s now to make sure that he follows the law. I know that he believes like I do that we need to have secure, accessible, and fair elections in our state, and I know he’s doing the best that he can do with what he has to work with under this never before pandemic that we’ve seen certainly in our lifetime, and I know a lot of good, hardworking local elections officials and board members at the local level are doing the same, and I’m sure they’ll do a great job.
Brad Means: Just a couple more questions for you, Governor Kemp. First of all, you made the decision to close Georgia schools for the rest of the year. Do you see any situation for the seniors and their families, in high school, where there could be some sort of graduation ceremony, even if it’s outdoors, even if it’s socially distanced? Could that happen maybe?
Gov. Brian Kemp: Yeah, it’s really a tough deal for our seniors. My heart breaks for them and their families. It’s something that, quite honestly, I had a daughter that graduated last year, and one two years before that, and I’ll have one next year, and it’s hard to imagine not getting to go through the graduation ceremony, the anticipation that comes with that in your local community, and I know that’s the case all over the state, so my heart literally breaks for those kids and their parents, their families and friends. You know, how that’s gonna look this year, Brad, I’m not sure. I know Superintendent Woods and I stay in touch with the superintendents and a lot of educational leaders and that’s one of the many things that we’re discussing with them as well as what the summer looks like, and what we’d look like going into next fall. There’s still a lot of moving parts there.
Brad Means: Finally, Governor Kemp, I feel like I ask you this each time, but I just want to keep touching on it, and get you to keep me up to speed on it. Every time I walk in the grocery store, the shelves are still bare on so many aisles, especially, as you know, paper products. Why can’t we get those stores restocked? Surely people aren’t still hoarding when they’re limiting how much you can buy now.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, I can assure you that we have the transportation and logistics lines open like never before. The executive orders I’ve signed certainly allows for that, allows for waiving a lot of the bureaucracy and red tape as far as our logistics network go to allow them to deliver extended periods of times in a safe way to supply the food chain and the critical product chain that we have out there. I’m not real sure what the deal is on the paper products. I know that we have a toilet paper manufacturer, maybe more than one in our state, and I know they’re running at 120% capacity right now, but that certainly seems to be an issue. I think the retailers are doing the best that they can to continue to stock the shelves and I certainly appreciate those that are limiting the supplies to the customers to make sure they get what they need, but they’re not hoarding. It’s just an unfortunate situation, and I think quite honestly, in today’s world of 24 hour news sometimes people actually panic when they need to not do that.
Brad Means: Well, Governor Kemp, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to be with us. I know that we’ll talk again soon, but we do appreciate your leadership and your time during this busy season, for sure.
Gov. Brian Kemp: You got it, Brad, and National Guard and help’ll be on the way tomorrow.
Brad Means: Thank you so much for that. Governor Brian Kemp, our special guest today.