In 2019, Georgia's health chief feared a global pandemic. She said 'I don't think we're prepared'
When Kathleen Toomey was appointed as the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health in 2019 by Gov. Brian Kemp, his staff asked her a question: What keeps her up at night?
“A global pandemic,” she told them.
Toomey made the revelation in a wide-ranging interview with GPB News on the one-year anniversary of vaccine rollout across the state.
She touched on everything from the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on public health staff to widespread vaccine hesitancy across all racial groups in Georgia.
But it was her remarks about taking on the role of becoming the state’s top public health chief that seemed most prescient. Despite everything over the last two years, she also said she was “grateful” to have taken the job and that she and her staff have tried to save as many lives in Georgia as possible.
What was it about a global pandemic that kept her up at night? Even in 2019, she said, she predicted the world was not prepared.
“I said, ‘I don't think we're prepared," Toomey told GPB News. "'I don't think our staff are prepared. We have practiced. We've talked about it for years and years.' But never in my wildest dreams did I believe that we would actually have to deal with that and how difficult it would be.”
Toomey leads the state’s 159 public health departments across 18 health districts. Before that, she served as the Director of the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness.
The longtime epidemiologist also worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the country director in Botswana.
“For me who’s worked in public health for so many years, this has been the biggest privilege in my life, to be here,” she said. “And I'm just so grateful to be in a position to have made a difference — I hope — to the state, possibly to the U.S., by being where I was in trying to help get through this pandemic.”
Toomey said she and her team accounted for a lot of things when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia — including how best to prevent spread, market a new vaccine and distribute it equitably across the state.
But the one thing she wasn’t prepared for, she said, was people.
“I never could have anticipated people,” she said. “I didn’t have insight into how people would react.”
Toomey stood with the governor in Savannah exactly a year ago, when a group of nurses received the first COVID vaccines in Georgia.
“It was a sense of relief. Now we had something,” she recalled. “Now we had something that was going to stop the spread of this virus that was killing so many people, that was affecting so many people’s health — even in the long term — that we never could have anticipated. And I had hoped people would embrace it fully.”
But the coronavirus vaccine was met with hesitation and even hostility. Toomey said emotions ran high among Georgians who were desperate to get the shot and those who were adamantly against it.
Implementing a rapid nationwide rollout of a vaccine for the first time didn’t go without its kinks. State officials were heavily criticized for a glitchy vaccine appointment system and initial limited availability for Georgians.
Public health workers took the brunt of the anger, Toomey said.
“For all of us who worked in public health for years, to be greeted with the hostile emails and hostile phone calls throughout the state, not just in my office but locally, was really a challenge,” she said. “Because we were trying so hard not only to ensure we were serving everyone, but to make sure that we made the right decisions to maximize the benefit across the state.”
But when a surplus of vaccines did arrive, the state’s health care workers faced a different threat: being lambasted at vaccine events by Georgians opposed to the shot.
“To the point that some of our teams going out in mobile vans were met with boos and jeers and even were afraid of their own safety,” Toomey said. “You know, that, to me, is a whole different ball game for trying to solve what is a public health problem.”
For her, getting Georgians vaccinated was personal. Toomey never met her grandfather, who died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. When she was a girl, she would hear her father talk about if only there had been a vaccine, then her grandfather could have lived a much longer life.
“Now we see that isn't necessarily true and that is sad,” she said. “To me, that’s the sad reality of what we’re dealing with.”
As new variants of the virus complicate continued public health response, Toomey said there are still many unknowns, as in the first stages of the pandemic. She said she knows people are tired of wearing masks, but she urged people to continue to use caution heading into the Christmas holiday next week.
Toomey stood behind the state’s decision to roll out the vaccine in waves, starting with health care workers and elderly Georgians. To critics who blasted the state’s response, she said, the pandemic brought with it challenges no one could have anticipated.
“We didn't know that virus," she said. "We didn't know what it was going to do. We still don't.”
More than 1.6 million people in Georgia have been sickened by the coronavirus, with nearly 30,000 people dying from the disease since the pandemic first arrived here in March 2020, according to the CDC.
Since the first COVID-19 shots were delivered a year ago, Georgia’s vaccination rate hovers at roughly 50%.
“I think there's a lot still to be done, and I really thank so much the public health staff who have just been extraordinary,” Toomey said. “I know everybody's exhausted and we just need to keep up this — this good work — and keep up the fight.”
Georgia’s top health chief is still optimistic about a brighter future.
A year from now, she said, she would like for COVID to be less virulent and that Georgians will be able to treat COVID-19 like a seasonal flu with a yearly booster shot.
“That’s what I hope,” she said.