Georgia surpasses 200,000 coronavirus cases, nears 4,000 deaths

Cars packed with families and friends showed up for COVID-19 tests outside Glynn County Health Department in Brunswick. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)
Cars packed with families and friends showed up for COVID-19 tests outside Glynn County Health Department in Brunswick. (Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM)

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

The state of Georgia on Wednesday surpassed 200,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, becoming just the fifth state in the U.S. to reach the somber milestone.

Georgia also is likely to eclipse 4,000 cumulative deaths this week, as fatalities from COVID-19 have risen in the wake of a prolonged surge in new infections.

Data from the state Department of Public Health show a net increase of 3,765 cases and 63 deaths on Wednesday. Cases of the virus appear to have plateaued at a high level after weeks of exponential growth, and hospitals remain strained.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Health experts fear that yet another surge in cases could be coming, as schools began reopening in some Atlanta area communities for in-person instruction in recent days and more are to come.

“We really haven’t gotten this anywhere near under control,” said Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Georgia is among 21 states with outbreaks serious enough be placed in the "red zone" by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, according to a federal report obtained last week by The New York Times. The report, which was distributed to states, recommends a mandate for the public to wear masks in coronavirus hot spots and, "optimally," statewide.

ExploreAJC's new charts track virus’ impact in Georgia

The task force report recommends Georgia close bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues, and limit indoor dining at restaurants to less than 25% capacity. Other recommendations include beefing up testing and contact tracing and weekly testing of workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Gov. Brian Kemp has encouraged people to wear face coverings but has balked at a mask mandate. He sued Atlanta over a mask requirement and steps by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to rollback reopening plans because they conflicted with his orders. Kemp also has resisted re-implementing tighter restrictions on businesses.

Another red flag came Wednesday, when Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House task force, warned state and local leaders on a call Wednesday about conditions in 10 communities, including Atlanta.

“We are seeing encouraging signs across the South,” Birx said during the call, a recording of which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. “We are concerned that both Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a very high level — [also] Kansas City, Portland, Omaha [and] of course what we talked about in the Central Valley [of California].”

In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Birx said, “If you have high case load and active community spread, just like we are asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties, ... we are asking people to distance learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control.”

Georgia reported week-over-week case increases in nine out of 10 weeks from early May through mid-July. Since the week of July 12, cases have hovered at about 25,000 each week.

ExploreCOVID-19 cases reported as schools reopen in Georgia

Georgia last week reported about 188,000 tests, a new weekly high. Over the past three weeks, Georgia has averaged about 25,000 tests per day. The positivity rate of tests reported Wednesday was 11 percent and the seven-day rolling average was at 12 percent, down from 14 percent on July 23.

The World Health Organization and White House guidelines call for positivity rates of 5 percent or less to get the virus under control.

One gauge of virus spread in communities is to measure the rate of new cases per 100,000 people in a county over a two-week period. A rate of more than 100 cases per 100,000 people is substantial spread, according to Georgia DPH guidelines.

“We are seeing encouraging signs across the South. We are concerned that both Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a very high level.”

- Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House coronavirus task force

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of DPH data, shows all but three of Georgia’s 159 counties currently are reporting rates above the substantial spread threshold.

More than 115 counties report triple or more that rate of spread, including the metro Atlanta counties of Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

Six rural Georgia counties of Charlton, Chattahoochee, Decatur, Evans, Jeff Davis and Seminole report rates of 10 times or greater the threshold for substantial rate of spread.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said the state still isn’t doing enough testing. Much of Georgia’s testing strategy is built around drive-thru sites, but to reach less affluent people, who are more prone to serious infection, the state needs to deploy mobile testing centers in neighborhoods.

In some counties, there is likely such limited testing that the scope of the outbreak isn’t well understood, he said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know, but we do know this is literally a crisis from border to border across the state,” Heiman said.