ATLANTA (CN) — After rushing to become the first state in the country to reopen in May following a late shutdown in response to the pandemic, over 4,000 Georgians are dead from the virus and some experts warn that things could get worse if officials don’t move quickly to control the spread.
In defiance of White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines advising states to emerge from their shutdowns only after observing declining rates in documented cases, Georgia officials allowed gyms and other businesses known to contribute to the spread of the virus to reopen in May.
Even though Georgia has the fifth-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the nation, Republican Governor Brian Kemp has repeatedly resisted implementing a mask mandate, calling it “a bridge too far,” and sued the city of Atlanta to stop local officials from enforcing a mask rule. Kemp withdrew the lawsuit Friday but said he will sign an executive order preventing local governments from mandating mask use on private property.
Georgia is averaging over 3,000 new cases each day, with more than 231,895 infected so far, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Although the state has conducted more than 1.9 million tests and its testing capacity has improved since May, Georgia remains among the nearly two dozen states designated as having “uncontrolled spread” as measured by the rate of new cases by the non-partisan think tank Covid Exit Strategy.
One day after the governor refused to set a mask mandate for public schools and said the state has made “positive progress” with regard to testing, Georgia broke its own single-day death toll from the virus with 137 deaths reported Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
On Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said it had obtained a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force warning that the state is not doing enough to curb the spread of the virus and recommending that officials adopt a statewide mask mandate.
The concerns reportedly expressed in the document echo the worries of local health experts.
“We’re not really doing anything to try to stop it,” Dr. Amber Schmidtke, a microbiologist and public health analyst, told Courthouse News Thursday.
“In fact, we’re adding transmission by opening schools and such. When you combine that with the fact that we have not done enough testing, we don’t have enough contact tracers, we don’t have enough hospital capacity — it’s a worrying situation right now,” Schmidtke said.
The decision to reopen some public schools in Georgia has led to nationwide debate. According to school reform group GeorgiaCAN, more than 80 Georgia school districts have opened or plan to open for some kind of in-person instruction in August.
North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia made national headlines after a student posted a photo to Twitter showing a school hallway crammed with students who were not wearing masks just days after the school opened for the 2020-2021 academic year.
The school closed temporarily after it was discovered that 35 students tested positive for the virus but plans to reopen Monday.
Another school, Etowah High School in the Cherokee County school district, announced that it would close Tuesday until Aug. 31 after more than 900 students and staff were quarantined due to an outbreak. The school was open for just six days.
Neither school required students to wear masks.
Although few children have died due to Covid-19, children who are infected with the virus can increase the spread of infection among the general population.
A report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association on July 30 found that Georgia’s rate of Covid-19 cases among children is higher than the national average.
According to the report, Georgia ranks sixth in cumulative number of child Covid-19 cases with a total of 14,295 cases as of July 30. The state reported only one child death due to the virus.
Dr. Andreas Handel, an epidemiologist and infectious disease modeler at the University of Georgia, warned that school reopenings, which he called “a definite problem,” could cause the number of positive cases to shoot up.
Although returning to school may not be a high-risk activity for many younger students, the danger comes after they leave school for the day.
“They take it home and give it to family members and I think that will probably lead to a lot of community spread,” Handel said.
For college students, the risk is significantly higher due to their age, Handel explained.
“As long as they stay on campus, they’ll just spread it among each other but they will quite likely have contact with the community. Some universities have the plan that when students test positive they’re asked to go home, then of course that means they take it with them,” Handel said.
Handel said Georgia officials should consider another shutdown, “although maybe not as extreme as it was in March.”
“I don’t think there’s a need for bars to be open right now and there’s no need for in-door dining in restaurants and there should be a general mask requirement,” Handel said, acknowledging that a full shutdown may not be “feasible.”
Schmidtke said Thursday that she would also encourage officials to implement another shutdown to bring transmission levels down “to a level that we can properly track and monitor through testing.”
“We could add a million tests tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter if we don’t also work on the front end of trying to reduce disease transmission in our communities. Ultimately, we will hit a wall on testing even if we’re putting out a million tests a day,” she said.
Even as the rates for testing in the state increase, positive results remain at the same levels, prompting experts to question whether the state’s leadership is doing enough to combat transmission.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough. Cases are not going down and that’s what they should do,” Handel said Friday.
Although Dr. Colin Smith, an epidemiologist and clinical assistant professor of health management and policy at Georgia State University, says he was “surprised” to see the state exceeded his expectations in terms of the number of tests produced each day, he believes Georgia came out of the shutdown “too quickly” and says that the state did not meet White House criteria for having opened “even though we claimed that we did.”
“We now have such a need because we have uncontrolled spread that our capacity is not meeting the need that we have and you can see that as it’s reflected in the percent of positive cases creeping up,” Smith, who previously served as the president of the Georgia Public Health Association, said.
The stagnant progress has become disappointing for some public health professionals because the data they provide to help people make informed decisions “feels like it’s being ignored or politicized,” Schmidtke explained.
“It feels very frustrating where we are right now, especially to see the deaths climb as they are because those deaths were probably preventable. That’s honestly the hardest part about working in public health right now,” she said.