Georgia’s Brian Kemp stays course as state’s coronavirus rates climb

Vaccine will be limited, governor says. General public won’t see shots ‘for months.’

Amid a post-Thanksgiving surge, Georgia reported the highest weekly total of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases last week than at any point in the pandemic. And President Donald Trump’s virus task force urged states to sound the alarm ahead of Christmas, Hanukkah and other year-end holidays.

“Begin warning about any gathering during December holidays,” the latest weekly White House Coronavirus Task Force report warned in bold letters. The document, obtained Tuesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and dated on Sunday, urged Georgia and other states to take stronger action to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“Mitigation efforts must increase, including the implementation of key state and local policies with an additional focus on uniform behavioral change including masking, physical distancing, hand hygiene, no indoor gatherings outside of immediate households, and aggressive testing to find the asymptomatic individuals responsible for the majority of infectious spread,” the White House report said.

For the first time in weeks, metro Atlanta joined the regions of the state that the White House puts in the red zone for new infections. The highest rates of spread generally are in far north Georgia. The task force report said 79% of Georgia counties now have moderate or high rates of virus transmission, up from 70% a week ago.

Georgia will begin to receive shipments of coronavirus vaccines in the days ahead, but they will be limited and reserved initially for residents of long-term care homes and health workers. The nation faces some of its darkest days of the pandemic, health experts say, as cases, hospitalizations and deaths soar.

Georgia reported more than 32,000 confirmed and rapid antigen test positive cases of the virus for the week ended Saturday, an AJC analysis of state data shows. The number of people currently hospitalized in Georgia — 2,606 as of Tuesday — is at its highest point since August.

The White House task force, as it has for weeks, urged states to reduce capacity or close public and private places where masking is impossible, such as restaurants and bars.

New cases of coronavirus in Georgia have been rising steadily for two months.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp expressed concern about the rise in cases. He and the state’s top doctor, Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, urged Georgians to wear masks, wash hands, avoid crowds and get a flu shot.

But Kemp did not announce any new coronavirus restrictions on gatherings or businesses or a mask mandate as most states now have. Kemp’s executive orders have remained largely unchanged since the summer.

“We have been able to successfully balance both lives and livelihoods,” Kemp said. “Georgia businesses have been allowed to resume operations and people have been allowed to exercise their constitutional freedoms. Not every state has taken this approach, and my plea to Georgians is this — to keep Georgia open, to keep hardworking people employed, to keep food on the table for thousands, please follow the guidance we’ve been preaching for months.”

Though he thinks most Georgians followed the state’s advice over Thanksgiving, the governor said some let down their guard. Kemp said the guidance, if people will follow it, works.

“We’ve just got to all make sure we double down on that, even if it’s just for a couple weeks to get over this hump,” Kemp said.

Governor Brian P. Kemp takes off his mask before speaking at a press conference at the state capital on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2020.   STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Test positivity rising

Georgia remains in the COVID-19 red zone for cases and returned to the task force’s red zone for test positivity last week. Georgia now ranks 25th for test positivity, up from 37th a week ago. The current seven-day rolling average positivity rate among PCR tests of 12% indicates Georgia isn’t testing enough people, as health experts want the number to be below 5%.

Total PCR tests reported declined last week.

“Not only are things getting worse, we are doing less testing, not more,” said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher and former Mercer University professor who tracks Georgia’s epidemic on her widely read blog. “You can’t find disease if you are not looking for it.”

The White House Coronavirus Task Force said Georgia ranked 47th, or fifth-best out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., for the rate of new cases for the seven days that ended Friday.

But the case figures used by the task force to compare Georgia’s standing only include confirmed cases as determined by molecular PCR tests and not rapid antigen tests. Some states combine PCR and antigen positives in reports of daily cases as recommended by the White House task force.

On that basis, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, clouding the public’s view of the state of Georgia’s pandemic relative to other states.

Vaccines coming, supply limited

As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Georgia reported 5,716 confirmed and antigen positive cases of COVID-19. Of those 3,709 were confirmed by PCR tests. The state also reported 20 confirmed deaths.

To date, the state has reported 452,369 confirmed cases, 59,898 antigen positive cases and 9,027 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Another 846 deaths are listed as probable COVID-19 deaths.

During the press conference, Kemp said the state will begin to receive the first shipments of a limited number coronavirus vaccine doses in the next week to 10 days. But he warned the supply of inoculations will be reserved at first for the most vulnerable, including nursing home residents and health workers.

“Our first shipments will not be anywhere close enough for anyone in our state to stop following the same public health guidance that we’ve had in place for many months,” the governor said.

For that reason, Kemp said, Georgians must step up.

“The general public will not be able to be vaccinated for months,” he said.