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Kemp: COVID-19 vaccinations to start within weeks in Georgia

FILE - In this July 17, 2020, file photo, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the Capitol, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
FILE - In this July 17, 2020, file photo, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a coronavirus briefing at the Capitol, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday that he expects vaccinations of health care workers in Georgia against COVID-19 to begin in the second or third week of December, as nursing home executives appealed to the Republican to keep supporting them financially.

Kemp made the remarks in a meeting with leaders of the Georgia Health Care Association, a lobby group for the state’s nursing homes.

“I am confident that when a COVID vaccine is authorized, we will be ready to distribute,” Kemp said.

The governor spoke as health officials watch closely for an expected increase in coronavirus infections following Thanksgiving.

Although there has been a dip in positive test results that’s likely related to the holidays, Georgia is still averaging more than 3,000 confirmed and probable cases a day. The state has recorded nearly 472,000 confirmed and probable cases and nearly 9,500 confirmed and probable deaths, according to the state Public Health Department. School-aged children recorded their highest infection rate last week since the state began releasing numbers by age groups, passing the previous summer peak.

One measure not affected by the holidays continues to worsen. Nearly 2,200 people were in Georgia hospitals on Monday with confirmed cases of COVID-19. The last time there were so many was on Aug. 26, as the state was declining from a peak in hospitalizations of 3,200 on July 31. Statewide, there’s still room in intensive care units, with those beds running at 81% capacity, but 16 Georgia hospitals were diverting ICU patients on Monday, including all three hospitals in Macon, and five of the 11 hospitals in the Atlanta-based Piedmont Healthcare system.

The virus remains worst in northwest Georgia around Dalton, with more than 1 in 100 residents in both Murray and Whitfield counties testing positive in the two weeks that ended Friday. The state identifies 67 of Georgia’s 159 counties as having high transmission.

The impact of the pandemic has been heavy at nursing homes, which have recorded nearly a third of all of Georgia’s deaths.

Statewide, 661 nursing and assisted living homes had recorded more than 17,000 cases of COVID-19, representing more than 40% of all residents, according to the state Department of Community Health. Another 9,300 employees have tested positive.

Kemp has deployed National Guard teams to try to control infections at long-term care facilities. The state is spending $78 million in federal coronavirus aid to test staff members at nursing homes and another $46 million to boost staffing at more than 160 nursing homes through the end of the year.

Nursing home owners expressed gratitude for the aid, but pressed Kemp on Monday to continue the support into 2021, saying they had lost many long-term employees and were having trouble hiring new ones. They also made a subtle pitch for higher Medicaid payments, which finance the operation of many nursing homes.

“Obviously it’s hard to get new people in because of the wages we are able to pay,” said Ron Westbury, whose company owns four nursing homes in middle Georgia.

Kemp was noncommittal, saying “we will continue to support your teams in any way that we can,” while a spokesperson didn’t immediately answer more specific questions.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.