CDC report suggests Georgia’s COVID-19 fight is far from over

Despite weeks of social distancing to contain the coronavirus, the outbreak continues to worsen in many parts of Georgia, a federal report shows.

Despite weeks of social distancing to contain the coronavirus, the outbreak continues to worsen in many parts of Georgia, a federal report shows.

The report, presented to the White House by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates deaths from the virus will reach 3,000 a day nationwide by June. That is significantly higher than the current daily average of about 1,750 and foretells an ultimate death toll far exceeding 100,000.

In Georgia, the CDC said, metro Atlanta and other populous regions of the state are among the areas "whose burden continues to grow," or that, at best, have seen new diagnoses level off at a high plateau. Several counties, many of them rural and scantly populated, showed significant declines in infection rates.

Georgia has confirmed more than 29,400 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. By Monday evening, 1,243 deaths had been reported statewide, an increase of 64 since Sunday.

In its report to the White House, the CDC did not provide county-level data, although it represented each of the nation's more than 3,000 counties on color-coded maps. The document, previously unpublicized, was published online Monday by The New York Times.

The CDC's maps showed the rate of infections still rising in Georgia's hardest-hit region, the counties surrounding Albany, about 200 miles southwest of Atlanta. Albany is the seat of Dougherty County, which has had one of the highest infection rates in the country and has recorded 125 deaths — only four fewer than Fulton County, although it has one-tenth the population.

The CDC report came to light as Georgia continued phasing in a resumption of business activity. Gov. Brian Kemp lifted a monthlong shelter-in-place order for most Georgians last week, but he ordered elderly and medically fragile residents to stay home until at least June 12.

With the lockdown ended, several metro Atlanta shopping malls reopened Monday. But many stores remained dark, and few shoppers ventured into the new normal of retailing.

A sign encouraging social distancing is displayed at Ponce City Market in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community on Monday, May 4, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

In another indicator of the pandemic’s staying power, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton said Monday he will extend a statewide judicial emergency until June 12. The emergency, which suspended trials and many other proceedings, had been scheduled to expire May 13.

Kemp defended his decision to relax social restrictions during an online conference call Monday with economist Stephen Moore, a member of President Donald Trump's economic task force, and FreedomWorks, a conservative organization that helped foster the tea party movement.

Georgia is “just so much better prepared now than we were a month or six weeks ago,” Kemp said. “We’re buckling in for the long haul,” he said, contending that the economic harm caused by the lockdown could be as damaging as the virus itself.


» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

» PHOTOS: COVID-19 testing at pop-up site in DeKalb


Kemp’s remarks suggested ideology has played a role in his response to the outbreak, as he shifted the burden for containing the virus from the government to individuals.

“Most people are heeding our advice and learning from their interactions,” Kemp said. “We’ve got to get people to own their personal responsibility, to continue to do the right thing, stay away from folks in public, wear a mask in a crowded grocery store, wash your hands.

“These things are working, and we’ve got to continue to do that until there’s a cure or some medication,” he said, apparently referring to a treatment for the disease.

Rick Hunt waves to motorists as they drive down Peachtree Road near Lenox Square mall on Monday, May 4, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Kemp even found a silver lining in projected shortfalls in the state budget, which are expected to require at least $3.5 billion in cuts. It may allow him, he said, to further implement Republican visions of limited government.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to revive conversations about doing more with less,” Kemp said. He did not elaborate.

Later, Kemp’s office released data showing a slight decline in hospitalizations for confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19: from 2,728 on April 8 to 2,655 on Monday. The data, compiled by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, showed a daily average number of 2,929 hospitalized patients during that period. About 5,500 coronavirus patients have been admitted to Georgia hospitals since the outbreak began.

An employee of The Roof at Ponce City Market wears a mask as he proceeds with his duties in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward community on Monday, May 4, 2020. The Roof at Ponce City Market, which had closed as a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic, reopened on Monday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Other data released by state officials conflicted to some degree with the CDC’s report to the White House. The Georgia data showed a declining rate of infection and death from the virus statewide, as well as a decline in emergency room visits by patients displaying coronavirus symptoms. Some of the figures are too recent to be considered complete.

Some public health experts continue to say Kemp acted too soon in lifting the shelter-in-place mandate, an action they predict will cause a second wave of infection.

“Let’s be clear, cases are not going down,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, wrote on Twitter. “The decision to lift restrictions is economic, but please don’t say it is based on public health data.

“Please stay safe, this ain’t over!”

Some of the more than two dozen specimen collection volunteers give the thumbs-up as they begin hundreds of free COVID-19 tests at a pop-up site at the House of Hope on Monday, May 4, in Decatur. Pastors, local physicians, health ministers, and other community leaders united to encourage area residents to get tested. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Bill Rankin contributed reporting to this article.

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