The White House Coronavirus Task Force is warning that Georgia continues to experience “widespread and expanding community viral spread” of COVID-19 and that the state’s current mitigation efforts are not enough to contain the virus. The warning comes as many Georgia schools are reopening and days after the state reported its highest daily death toll from the virus.
The Coronavirus Task Force report “strongly recommends” that Georgia adopt a mask mandate as well as restricting restaurants to less than one-quarter of dining room capacity and limiting social gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Currently, Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency order only requires that restaurants maintain six feet between diners and allows gatherings of up to 50 people if social distancing can be maintained.
The Task Force recommended that bars and nightclubs, which are currently open, should be closed in the highest-risk counties. The report also said that Georgia should increase testing and contract tracing and increase infection-control measures in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
The report, which has not been made public but was detailed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was dated August 9. The AJC obtained the report from a source who was not identified.
“These are public health data and they should be publicly available,” said Dr. Melanie Thompson, principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta. Thompson said it was frustrating the Task Force recommendations only became known because they were leaked.
Georgia’s Coronavirus daily tracking site shows that new cases plateaued after the state became the first to reopen in early April. In mid-June, the number of new cases skyrocketed amid the relaxation of social distancing and the George Floyd protests. New cases peaked on July 24 at 4,827 confirmed cases but have remained at extremely high levels. The current seven-day moving average of new cases is 3,445. Earlier this week, Georgia reported 136 deaths, its highest one-day total during the pandemic.
USA Today reports that Georgia ranks fifth in total numbers of COVID cases and seventh per capita. The Peach State ranks fourth among Coronavirus hospitalizations, behind New York, Florida, and New Jersey. The state has conducted about 1.9 million COVID tests and has a positivity rate of about 10 percent. The World Health Organization recommends a five percent positivity rate for reopening businesses.
It amid this viral surge that many Georgia counties are reopening schools. In Georgia, local school districts set their own individual schedules so some districts have elected to hold all virtual classes or push back start dates. In other counties, however, it is business as usual with some not even requiring masks.
At least two large schools in the state have already had to shut down due to COVID outbreaks. North Paulding High School closed after two days but has reopened after at least 35 confirmed cases of Coronavirus were identified. Two schools in Cherokee County had to close amid an outbreak that required nearly 1,200 students and staff members to be quarantined.
Gov. Kemp has resisted previous calls for stricter mitigation efforts and mask mandates. Kemp’s Executive Order prohibits local governments from enacting their own mandates and the state filed suit against Atlanta to stop the city from enforcing its own measures. The AJC reports that the governor withdrew that lawsuit but plans a new Executive Order that still bans local governments from enforcing mask orders.
In the absence of government mandates, most businesses in Georgia seem to be taking the initiative to require masks and safety measures on their own. In my city, it is rare to not see signs requiring masks as you enter stores and restaurants, although enforcement varies widely.
Interestingly, Georgia has approximately the same population as Sweden, which has been touted as a model of achieving herd immunity by many. Georgia has a total of 228,668 confirmed cases compared to only 83,852 for Sweden. On a per capita basis, Georgia has 21,537 cases per million population while Sweden has only 8,297, indicating that Georgia may be closer to herd immunity than the Nordic country. This may be due to Swedish social distancing measures that helped to contain the virus even without a lockdown.
Nevertheless, Georgia’s confirmed cases represent only about two percent of the population. At a minimum, herd immunity would probably require exposure of half the population, meaning that the state is only about 1/25 of the way to herd immunity. This, of course, assumes that surviving the virus confers immunity, which is still in doubt. Even assuming that Coronavirus cases are dramatically undercounted, there is a long way to go to herd immunity.
Gov. Kemp has urged residents to wear masks and practicing social distancing even as he refused to implement mandates. However, voluntary measures seem to have proven inadequate. It is unconscionable to reopen the state’s schools in the current viral environment. The decision to push forward seems likely to be the result of pressure by the Trump Administration to get the country back to normal.
Georgia’s experiment in voluntary pandemic control has failed. It is past time for the state government to step in and order another shelter-in-place until virus levels are under control. Suppression of the Coronavirus Task Force recommendations by both the White House and the state government should lead Georgians to question whether both administrations have their best interests at heart.
“We’re not doing anything and we’re hoping magically numbers are going to go down,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System. “Hope is not a strategy.”
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