Georgia sets single-day coronavirus record

Medical workers arrive for work at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta on Friday morning, Dec. 4, 2020 as major hospitals including Grady Memorial, WellStar Kennestone, Emory University and Augusta University were going on and off diversion last week, meaning ambulances bringing in more patients had to be turned away. On Friday, Georgia recorded its highest single day record of new coronavirus infections. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Medical workers arrive for work at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta on Friday morning, Dec. 4, 2020 as major hospitals including Grady Memorial, WellStar Kennestone, Emory University and Augusta University were going on and off diversion last week, meaning ambulances bringing in more patients had to be turned away. On Friday, Georgia recorded its highest single day record of new coronavirus infections. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

‘What we are seeing is a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide,’ official says

Georgia reported a record high of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases on Friday, and the worst is likely yet to come, health experts said.

The new daily record followed three days of sharp increases, but state officials had attributed those spikes at least in part to laboratory and provider reporting backups from the Thanksgiving holiday.

That’s no longer the case.

“Today’s COVID-19 numbers do not include backlogs of any significance,” Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said. “What we are seeing is a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide.”

And the fallout of Thanksgiving gatherings, which public health experts have feared, won’t be fully known for days.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 4,947 net new confirmed infections and 1,429 net new antigen positive tests — or 6,376 combined cases — on Friday. The state also reported 43 confirmed new deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Public health experts say infections from over Thanksgiving week are likely only beginning to appear in Georgia’s reporting, and it will take more time to see the full brunt of infections triggered by holiday gatherings. People exposed to the virus typically exhibit symptoms days later, prompting a test. It can take a few days more before results are reported.

“It’s possible that we’re seeing the beginning of the Thanksgiving surge, especially if people traveled or began gathering ahead of Thanksgiving Day,” Nydam said. “However, we know there is widespread community transmission of COVID-19 statewide and throughout the country.”

The seven-day rolling average of confirmed and antigen positive cases is now about 10% greater than the summer surge of confirmed cases in July. The positivity rate for the gold standard molecular PCR test is now 12%, the highest it’s been since early August. Experts say a rate over 5% suggests the state’s testing isn’t capturing the breadth of new cases.

‘We are not plateauing’

The number of people currently hospitalized with the virus also is climbing, and hospitals are feeling the strain of COVID-19 patients even before what’s expected to be peak of the autumn wave and influenza season.

The seven-day rolling average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients stood at 2,228 on Friday, the highest point since late August and up more than 77% since Oct. 12.

“We are not plateauing. We are on a critical upward trend,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “People need to recognize that there’s help on the way in the way of a vaccine, but for most of us that help is not going to come until late spring or early summer.

“If we want to live to see that day and make sure our family members live to see that day, we need to double down on following the public health science and do what we can to avoid risk,” he said.

Health experts have said the cooler months ahead could be bleak in Georgia if residents do not heed warnings to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands, get a flu shot and avoid gatherings, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces. Public health experts also watched Thanksgiving with trepidation as tens of millions of Americans planned travel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DPH warned against Thanksgiving travel. Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s top doctor, urged Georgians to re-think holiday gatherings, shift to virtual celebrations if possible, or move holiday meals outdoors and wear masks while not eating to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Though Kemp expressed concern about Thanksgiving triggering a surge in cases, he did not implement any new restrictions on gatherings or businesses, despite the urging of independent health experts and President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force.

12/03/2020 —  Carrollton, Georgia —  Tanner Health System Hospital nurse Arielle [last name withheld] puts on gloves to complete her PPE ensemble as she prepares to enter a COVID-19 patients room on the Covid-19 isolation floor at Tanner Health System Hospital in Carrollton Thursday, December 3, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
12/03/2020 — Carrollton, Georgia — Tanner Health System Hospital nurse Arielle [last name withheld] puts on gloves to complete her PPE ensemble as she prepares to enter a COVID-19 patients room on the Covid-19 isolation floor at Tanner Health System Hospital in Carrollton Thursday, December 3, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Expert: Aggressive action needed

In its most recent report dated Sunday, the White House Coronavirus Task Force urged “universal masking” and to close or limit operations of public establishments where masking isn’t possible — such as bars and restaurants, though these businesses were mentioned explicitly.

“In many areas of the country, mitigation efforts are inadequate or too recently implemented to see a significant impact,” the task force report said. “All states and all counties must flatten the curve to sustain the health system for both COVID and non-COVID emergencies.”

Heiman said the governor should implement a statewide mask mandate with enforcement powers as many other states have, rather than the piecemeal system of local ordinances with business opt-in. Temporary new restrictions on indoor dining, bars and nightclubs also are needed, Heiman said.

“The only way to flatten the curve is by much more aggressive policy action by our governor and the Department of Public Health,” Heiman said.

Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, said the governor will hold a press conference early next week to discuss the pandemic and vaccine distribution.

“Until then, we are continuing to urge Georgians to follow public health guidance that is proven to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Hall said. “Wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance, follow the guidance in our executive orders, and get a flu shot.”

At a press conference before Thanksgiving, Kemp said Georgia residents bent the curve in the summer by people taking personal responsibility, not by him issuing mandates.

“Our citizens are the ones that solved the problem after July Fourth,” Kemp said at the Nov. 24 press conference.

To date, Georgia has reported 438,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 56,054 cases as determined by antigen tests. The state also has reported 8,922 confirmed deaths and another 803 “probable” deaths attributed to the virus.