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COVID-19 still vexing to world's health officials
Toomey speaker during Effingham Day at the Capitol
Kathleen Toomey
Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner addresses an Effingham County audience at the James H. "Sloppy" Floyd Building on Feb. 1. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

ATLANTA — One of the most learned medical professionals on the planet admitted during Effingham Day at the Capitol that she doesn’t have all the answers regarding COVID-19.

“You may remember the last time I was with you was two years ago,” Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building, recalling the 2020 version of Effingham Day at the Capitol. The 2021 event was nixed because of the pandemic. 

“I started talking about COVID and I got everything wrong,” Toomey continued. “One gentleman in the audience asked me if I thought he would be able to go on an African safari in the summer — and I hope he’s here so that I can apologize to him — because I said, ‘Oh, yeah. I think that will be fine. This is over in Asia and it will just burn itself out.’

“Well, you remember what happened in July (2020). We were all on fire all over the world, so that’s one way for me to say we really didn’t know what to expect with this virus — and we still don’t — and I think that has really been hard.

“And it’s been really hard for everyone in public health from the top level on down to the Effingham County Health Department, which by the way has just worked tirelessly to protect the health and provide services for the citizens of Effingham County. I am so proud of the work that they have done and the hours that they have put in with vaccination and testing, and all these other things that they are doing as well and continuing to work with public health.”

According to data compiled from multiple of health agencies published in the New York Times, there have been 12,510 COVID-19 cases in Effingham County that resulted in 179 deaths.

Nationally, there have been 76.2 million cases and 900,000 deaths. Globally, the numbers are 391 million and 5.73 million, respectively.

“It’s been very, very difficult and the communication around the virus has been very difficult,” Toomey said. 

Toomey, who has held leadership positions in national and international health organizations, expressed empathy for those perplexed by conflicting information coming from world health officials.

“After 20 years at the CDC, sometimes, you know, I would do a head slap comparing what was being said because I can’t figure out what the message is,” she said. “And so I think, for us here, it is a challenge to ensure that we continue to have balance to protect the health of the public and continue to move forward, too, and be able to have kids in school, which, to me, is so important, and to be able to continue with our jobs and livelihoods but also to ensure that we protect everyone’s health.

“That’s been the balancing act as we try to understand what is happening.”

Toomey said the battle against the virus has changed the way numerous people live and go about their business.

“I think for us, too, it has been an opportunity to stretch in public health in a way that we’ve never been able to stretch before,” she said. “I have worked with the business community, which is so important to be able to help with the testing, help with vaccinations and help with their workforce. with the Georgia chamber and the Metro Atlanta chamber. We have also worked with the Georgia Office of Economic Development and the Department of Economic Development, which we never did before but we should have. They are obvious partners with public health. 

“... What I hope the legacy will be is working together in the community of public health. It is such a critical part of the community — working side by side with the medical community, side by side with schools and side by side with the business community.” 

Toomey’s speech to the Effingham County group was one of her first acts after returning from a week-long Galapagos Islands bird-watching trip. It was her first time off since the U.S. declared a public health emergency due to COVID-19 in February 2020.

The trip turned out to not be completely relaxing. She fell and broke her arms.