ATLANTA (AP) — The advisory board for Georgia's public health agency stopped holding meetings for more than a year during the coronavirus pandemic — a move that its leaders say was necessary to focus on the emergency response, though critics contend it made the agency less transparent at a time of crisis.
The board of physicians and health professionals that advises the Georgia Department of Public Health held its last meeting Feb. 11, 2020, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday. That was before the first COVID-19 infections were confirmed in Georgia.
The advisory board, which typically met monthly prior to the pandemic, still hasn't held a public meeting more than 15 months later. During that time, the virus has killed more than 17,800 people in Georgia and sickened more than 892,000.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the health agency's leader, defended the lengthy hiatus. She said her staff needed to focus on fighting the virus.
"We made a broad decision in discussions with various leadership that we would not have meetings at this time, but really invest in the work of the pandemic," Toomey said. "Because our epidemiologists were tied up."
Toomey noted she has fielded questions on Georgia's handling of the pandemic at dozens of media briefings and appearances, often at the side of Gov. Brian Kemp.
Richard T, Griffiths of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation said it's still difficult to understand why an agency leading the state's pandemic response wouldn't meet at all during the crisis.
"Even if they are not making key decisions, it would have been a vital way for the public to understand what's going on in Georgia and how the state's public response was taking place and provide context for the state's response," said Griffiths, the foundation's president emeritus.
Georgia lawmakers created the Board of Public Health in 2011, when the Department of Public Health became a standalone agency.
The agency oversees health emergencies, investigates disease outbreaks, conducts laboratory testing and provides routine vaccinations. Unlike many other Georgia agencies, the department isn't governed by a board. Instead, the nine-member Board of Public Health advises the agency and assists in forming policy.
Renee Unterman, a former state senator who pushed to make the Department of Public Health its own agency, said the board was created to promote transparency. But she also sympathized with department leaders faced with battling a deadly pandemic with limited resources.
"It's not a waste of energy, but it's a sideline to what you're doing in a crisis," Unterman said of Public Health board meetings. "You have to prioritize what you're doing."
While the Board of Public Health shelved its monthly meetings, Toomey said she remained in close contact with its members about the state's pandemic response.
Georgia law is generally silent on whether a board like the Board of Public Health has to hold meetings at all, said Greg Lisby, chairman of the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. But those who do meet, he said, need to do so in public.
"Any group that influences public funding, public policy and public behavior should really default to public meetings," Lisby said.