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Emory experts urge Georgia leaders to require face masks

A couple walks past the Six Pence restaurant on Bull Street in the Historic Downtown Savannah. Savannah became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of face masks, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials can take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
A couple walks past the Six Pence restaurant on Bull Street in the Historic Downtown Savannah. Savannah became the first major city in Georgia to require the use of face masks, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Brian Kemp over whether local officials can take more sweeping steps than the state to contain the coronavirus. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

With the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketing, medical experts from Emory University on Wednesday urged government officials to make mask wearing mandatory to help stem the rapid spread of the virus in Georgia and make sure businesses can safely remain open.

“Until we have a vaccine, we need society to step up — and our window is closing,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist who is also executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System. “We don’t have time to lose.”

"Early in the pandemic, as we were coming to work, people were cheering and saying thank you and giving us applause," said Dr. del Rio. "The way you can thank me is by wearing a mask. I really don't want to see you in the hospital, I really don't want to see you in the emergency room, I really don't want to see you in the ICU. It is heartbreaking to see."( Tyson Horne /tyson.horne@ajc.com)
"Early in the pandemic, as we were coming to work, people were cheering and saying thank you and giving us applause," said Dr. del Rio. "The way you can thank me is by wearing a mask. I really don't want to see you in the hospital, I really don't want to see you in the emergency room, I really don't want to see you in the ICU. It is heartbreaking to see."( Tyson Horne /tyson.horne@ajc.com)

During an online press conference, del Rio and Dr. Jonathan Lewin, CEO of Emory Healthcare, said they were deeply concerned that there will be a surge in sick patients that could stress resources and overwhelm hospital systems.

Widespread mask wearing, the doctors said, could be the key to saving lives and protecting the economy by avoiding another painful lock-down.

The doctors cited an analysis from Goldman Sachs that says a national mandate for Americans to wear face masks could save almost 5% of gross domestic product. They also emphasized that the public needs to stay diligent about frequent hand washing and social distancing.

Gov. Brian Kemp lifted a shelter-in-place order for all Georgians except the medically fragile on April 30. But the state has reported increases in the number of COVID-19 cases for six of the past seven weeks. With nearly 3,000 confirmed new cases Wednesday, Georgia set a record, according to state data.

Lewin and del Rio said the evidence is clear that masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19. States and countries with mask mandates are seeing a slowdown in the infection rate.

Still, Kemp has been reluctant to issue such an order.

Wednesday, Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require the use of masks, implementing a $500 fine for violations.

Mayor Van Johnson said he had no choice but to impose the restrictions as the city grapples with record-setting numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and thousands of tourists who aren’t wearing masks.

But it sets up a potential legal showdown with Kemp, who, so far, is only “strongly encouraged” the use of masks. The Republican governor has said he believes a mandate is a “bridge too far.”

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta.REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta.REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Kemp didn’t rule out taking legal action to block Savannah’s new mask mandate, but said Wednesday that it shouldn’t take a legal requirement for Georgians to wear face coverings.

“Regardless of any legal action that may or may not happen, you shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing,” Kemp said at the launch of a statewide fly-around tour.

Savannah’s new law puts Kemp in a dicey spot. Attempting to block the order pits him against the Democratic-led city over an issue – wearing masks – he advocates for. Not doing so could send a signal that other cities could take similar steps – and possibly enact additional restrictions.

“We can disagree on how we go about solving the problem,” Kemp said from the tarmac of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. “We all agree, especially right now, it’s wise for people to wear a mask, especially when they’re out in a public setting.”

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey prepares to speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta. Governor Kemp and Toomey will take part in a “Wear a Mask” Flyaround Tour of Georgia.REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey prepares to speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta. Governor Kemp and Toomey will take part in a “Wear a Mask” Flyaround Tour of Georgia.REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Kemp’s acknowledged his two-day, seven-city “Wear a Mask” tour comes amid a troubling increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations throughout the state.

“People had let their guard down. We were moving in a very positive direction” Kemp said. “Summer hit, people were itching to get out after weeks and months of shutdown, not only in our state but across the country. And, quite honestly, people got lackadaisical.”

Public health experts have argued that Kemp has contributed to that problem by aggressively rolling back restrictions in order to restart the economy — allowing bars, restaurants and personal care businesses to reopen if they follow guidelines.

March 23, 2017 Atlanta : Wearing a mask for pollen, Jacara Jackson Ð 14 waited for her school bus to Inman Middle School on Thursday, March 23, 2017 in the 400 block of Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta near ÒThe Sunrise of EdgewoodÓ mural. The good news is pollen is down fromÊÒextremely highÓ ranges to high. The pollen count was 1,948 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air Wednesday, according to Atlanta Allergy and Asthma. It dropped to 644 Thursday.Ê The count this time last year was 2,402, and last yearÕs season high was 4,107. Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Katie Walls forecast Friday to have Sun and clouds with a high temperature of 60. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
March 23, 2017 Atlanta : Wearing a mask for pollen, Jacara Jackson Ð 14 waited for her school bus to Inman Middle School on Thursday, March 23, 2017 in the 400 block of Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta near ÒThe Sunrise of EdgewoodÓ mural. The good news is pollen is down fromÊÒextremely highÓ ranges to high. The pollen count was 1,948 particles of pollen per cubic meter of air Wednesday, according to Atlanta Allergy and Asthma. It dropped to 644 Thursday.Ê The count this time last year was 2,402, and last yearÕs season high was 4,107. Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Katie Walls forecast Friday to have Sun and clouds with a high temperature of 60. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

At the Wednesday press conference, Lewin and del Rio avoided commenting specifically on what Kemp should and shouldn’t do, saying they didn’t want to weigh in on political matters, but instead wanted to focus on “science-based” recommendations. Lewin went on to say he understands that requiring masks in every community, particularly rural towns in Georgia with very few cases, may not be practical. But, for local leaders in larger cities such as Savannah, LaGrange and the metro Atlanta area, “city leaders may want to be more forceful in requiring masks.”

Kemp is using his “Wear a Mask” tour to highlight the distribution of 3 million masks to local governments and school districts across the state.

Protective face masks are pictured in a polling station during the second round of the municipal elections, Sunday, June 28, 2020 in Paris. France is holding the second round of municipal elections in 5,000 towns and cities Sunday that got postponed due to the country's coronavirus outbreak. (Joel Saget, Pool via AP)
Protective face masks are pictured in a polling station during the second round of the municipal elections, Sunday, June 28, 2020 in Paris. France is holding the second round of municipal elections in 5,000 towns and cities Sunday that got postponed due to the country's coronavirus outbreak. (Joel Saget, Pool via AP)

“I’m going to continue to consider every option that we have, based on the science and the data,” the governor said. “There’s a lot of people that don’t believe a mask mandate will work. I don’t think we’re going to have to get to that point. Our citizens have heeded the call before.”

The trend line in the U.S, and most of the country, has not been good. Americans are about 4% to 5% of the global population but now represents over a quarter of the cases in the world. Georgia is one of several states, particularly in the Sun Belt and the West, that are seeing cases climb.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are now at about 1,400 in the state. It was half that number a month ago.

Lewin said that, while the first wave of patients in March and April was made up of mostly older patients, Emory University hospitals are now seeing more younger patients in their 40s with other chronic health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. He said there’s also been a sharp increase in Hispanic patients.

“We don’t want to become another New York City. You can see what happened there when things were overwhelmed,” he said.

Lewin said he has witnessed the effectiveness of mandatory mask wearing at Emory University hospitals. Once masks became a requirement for all employees – not only health care workers caring for patients – they saw the infection rate among staff plummet to almost zero.

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With the upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, del Rio and Lewin urged caution. Residents might need to go to the grocery store or hardware store, Lewin said, but “there is no reason to have a backyard barbecue.”

Del Rio echoed the sentiment, saying he believes many of today’s cases are linked to Memorial Day social get-togethers.

“Saving lives is not a partisan issue. It is simply practical and compassionate,” said Lewin. “I like to say my mask protects you and your mask protects me and our masks together protect economic recovery.”

“The best thing we can do is to work hard at making masks a social norm and not a political statement,” he added.