U.S. House chairman asks Kemp for documents detailing Georgia’s handling of COVID-19

Lawmaker says Georgia isn't following task force recommendations as cases pile up

The chairman of a U.S. House coronavirus subcommittee sent Gov. Brian Kemp a letter Wednesday saying Georgia is not in compliance with White House COVID-19 task force recommendations and requesting detailed plans for dealing with the pandemic.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said Georgia is not following at least six recommendations from the task force, including mask mandates, strict limits on indoor dining and tighter restrictions on social gatherings.

“I am writing to request information about the private guidance the administration has provided to Georgia and whether you plan to implement those recommendations and take other critical action to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the state,” Clyburn wrote.

“Although the task force has apparently provided Georgia with private suggestions concerning public health measures designed to stop the spread of the virus, the state has not implemented many of these recommendations — and instead appears to be following the contradictory messaging coming from the administration.”

Clyburn, the chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, requested documents by Aug. 12 showing any recommendations the task force has made, a detailed description of what Georgia has done to stop the spread and what it plans to do in the future.

The chairman said failing to follow the task force’s recommendations “is allowing the virus to spread, prolonging and exacerbating the public health crisis facing the state.”

“I urge you to act quickly and mandate science-based public health measures,” Clyburn wrote.

The governor’s office had no immediate comment Wednesday and said it had not yet received the letter.

Clyburn also sent letters to the Republican governors of Florida, Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator.

Georgia is among 21 states with outbreaks serious enough be placed in the “red zone,” according to a federal report obtained by The New York Times. Distributed to state officials by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the report recommends that officials in Georgia “mandate use of masks in all current and evolving hotspots — optimally a statewide mandate.”

Kemp, who has encouraged but not required masks, maintains that cities and counties are barred from enforcing rules that are more or less restrictive than his own, and he is battling the city of Atlanta in court over its mask mandate and other measures focused on fighting the spread of COVID-19.

In the days leading up to the July Fourth holiday weekend, more than 1,400 medical professionals signed a letter urging Kemp to close bars and nightclubs, mandate masks and allow local governments to enact tougher restrictions.

Public health experts warned Kemp was practically inviting a new wave of infections in April when he announced plans to reopen the economy, and experts doubted the state had effective infrastructure to test people, trace contacts and isolate the sick if a new wave emerged.

“Everything that I have seen we have failed to put in place that infrastructure,” Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said in an interview earlier this month. “But for that infrastructure to be effective we need to step back and re-evaluate reopening.”

Georgia reached about 90,000 cases on July 3, a little more than four months after reporting its first confirmed case. The state’s total cases have nearly doubled in the 26 days since, to 178,323.

On Wednesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported more than 3,000 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The state also reported 79 new deaths attributed to the virus, totaling 3,642 since the start of the pandemic.

Georgia was one of the last states to order residents to shelter in place and one of the most aggressive states to reopen, even though state health officials acknowledged Georgia did not fully meet White House gating criteria in late April and May when the state started to loosen its restrictions.

Georgia is among 35 states or territories seeing increased spread over the past 14 days, according to a New York Times analysis.

The task force report recommends Georgia close bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues, and limit indoor dining at restaurants to less than 25% capacity. The document also recommends a mandate for the public to wear masks in coronavirus hot spots and “optimally” statewide.

Other recommendations include beefing up testing and contact tracing, expanding staff and capabilities at labs to reduce turnaround times for test results, and weekly testing of workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Testing has expanded in Georgia, but not fast enough to meet demand. Residents complain of long waits to schedule appointments, long lines at testing centers and delays of one to two weeks for results.

Results that are a week old or older, experts say, hamper efforts such as contact tracing needed to quickly identify and isolate outbreaks. And when patients must wait days just to get a test and a week or longer for a result, experts said, it only increases the likelihood of transmission.

Earlier this month, Kemp announced the state has tapped a North Carolina company to provide testing supplies and lab capacity to process 10,000 test kits per day. The company, Mako Medical, should start to ramp up its work soon, a DPH spokeswoman said.