A look at major coronavirus developments over the past week

Elsie Grant, 86, sets her walker aside reaching for an air hug from her daughter, Wanda Schroeder, while socially distanced behind a protective plastic curtain at Westbury Medical Care & Rehab in June. Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration this week updated nursing home and assisted living visitation rules, paving a clearer path for families to resume seeing loved ones amid the pandemic. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)
Elsie Grant, 86, sets her walker aside reaching for an air hug from her daughter, Wanda Schroeder, while socially distanced behind a protective plastic curtain at Westbury Medical Care & Rehab in June. Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration this week updated nursing home and assisted living visitation rules, paving a clearer path for families to resume seeing loved ones amid the pandemic. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Tuesday marked the first day of autumn and, with it, comes flu season, signaling a new phase in the war against COVID-19. Health officials, fearing another wave of infections compounded by influenza, have been imploring residents to get flu shots and keep up the mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

At the same time, Georgia officials are still withholding information about state’s response to the pandemic and about coronavirus case counts in schools.

Here’s a look at major coronavirus developments in Georgia over the past week.

Parents and teachers say they need more detailed information on school-level coronavirus case counts to gauge the risk in their schools.
Parents and teachers say they need more detailed information on school-level coronavirus case counts to gauge the risk in their schools.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Families press schools for virus data

Groups of parents and teachers are criticizing what they see as a dangerous trend: Some Georgia school districts publish detailed data about coronavirus case counts, but others reveal little or no information.

Emanuel County Schools, southwest of Augusta, recently started posting data online that shows district-wide rather than school-level case counts. Parents and family members say that doesn’t help them gauge the safety of specific schools. In Houston County, south of Macon, the school district publishes reports about case counts and identifies affected schools, without revealing the number of cases at affected schools.

“They’re obfuscating the data to make the district look better than it actually is,” said Houston County parent Caly Hess.

Experts disagree about whether schools’ case counts are subject to public disclosure.

Open government advocates say public health trumps privacy and disagree that federal laws protecting patient records allow withholding infection statistics.

Kara Dutton, principal, waves as school buses arrive at Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville on the first day of school for younger students amid the coronavirus outbreak. Gwinnett County Public Schools reports COVID-19 cases by school on its website. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Kara Dutton, principal, waves as school buses arrive at Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville on the first day of school for younger students amid the coronavirus outbreak. Gwinnett County Public Schools reports COVID-19 cases by school on its website. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Public Health withholds school case counts statewide

In late August, the Georgia Department of Public Health asked every school in the state to start sending weekly reports about infections, clusters of infections and related quarantines in each school. Initially, the department said it might share that information with the public.

But then last week health officials decided to withhold the information about coronavirus infections at each school. The department cited a legal exemption for data collected as part of "an outbreak or cluster investigation” when it declined to release the information to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The department also suggested that schools might not report to the state if the state then made their data public. About 70% of public schools have complied with the agency’s request for weekly reports.

In this March photo, a subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine by Moderna at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. To date, most study participants have been young-to-middle age adults, and medical experts are becoming more vocal in their desire to see children take part. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
In this March photo, a subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential COVID-19 vaccine by Moderna at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. To date, most study participants have been young-to-middle age adults, and medical experts are becoming more vocal in their desire to see children take part. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Credit: Ted S. Warren

Credit: Ted S. Warren

Experts want children in vaccine trials

With research showing that school-aged children can pass coronavirus on to adults, medical experts are becoming more vocal in their desire to see children take part in vaccine trial studies.

To date, most study participants have been young-to-middle age adults. A paper published Monday – “Warp Speed for COVID-19 Vaccines: Why are Children Stuck in Neutral?” — said children should be included.

“We believe it is a critical and important thing to be doing right now, so that we have a better chance of having a vaccine for children before the next school year begins,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr. Evan Anderson, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The paper by Anderson and others said they are unaware of any vaccine studies involving children in the U.S., despite data showing the death rate of children from COVID-19 is greater than the flu.

The AJC has paid $4,529 for pandemic-related documents from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, shedding light on Gov. Brian Kemp’s April statewide shelter-in-place order, the opening of emergency hospitals and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in contracts for equipment and services. Now GEMA's price tag for additional documents has escalated to nearly $33,000.
The AJC has paid $4,529 for pandemic-related documents from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, shedding light on Gov. Brian Kemp’s April statewide shelter-in-place order, the opening of emergency hospitals and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in contracts for equipment and services. Now GEMA's price tag for additional documents has escalated to nearly $33,000.

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

For pandemic records, Georgia wants the price of a new car

The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency says it will charge nearly $33,000 to process three Atlanta Journal-Constitution requests for public records. The AJC has asked for correspondence between top agency officials and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office related to the pandemic.

GEMA contends it will take 1,230 hours to do the work — meaning it could be about eight months before the newspaper receives many of the documents.

The cost and time estimates far exceed those for previous AJC requests for comparable documents.

“(GEMA and FEMA) should provide the records for free, given the public interest and importance during this pandemic,” said David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who has studied state open records laws.

The records reviewed by the AJC so far have shed light on Kemp’s April statewide shelter-in-place order, the opening of emergency hospitals and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in contracts for pandemic-related equipment and services.

A 61-year-old Mexican national who had been held at South Georgia's Stewart Detention Center died early Monday, becoming the third COVID-19 fatality among detainees there this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A 61-year-old Mexican national who had been held at South Georgia's Stewart Detention Center died early Monday, becoming the third COVID-19 fatality among detainees there this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Virus kills detainee at South Georgia ICE facility

Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, 61, a Mexican national who had been held at an immigration detention center near Lumpkin, died early Monday in a Columbus hospital. He was the third COVID-19 fatality among Stewart Detention Center detainees this year.

Stewart County Coroner Sybil Ammons said Chavez-Alvarez also had hypertension, gout and sleep apnea and had been hospitalized since Aug. 15.

“He had been in really bad shape for at least two weeks,” Ammons said, “like at death’s door.”

His death came a week after a whistleblower reported inadequate protections for COVID-19 at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, with allegations that several detainees had undergone gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, without their consent.

“As we mourn another tragedy at the deadly Stewart Detention Center, we ask decision makers what else it would take to shut down this horrid prison,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, one of the groups that filed the complaint against Irwin.

Staff writers Ty Tagami, Eric Stirgus, David Wickert, Jeremy Redmon and Alan Judd contributed to this story.

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