Coronavirus cases on the rise again in Georgia

‘We’re much closer to the beginning than the end of this,’ says expert.

Georgia’s reported coronavirus cases rose in each of the past two weeks, and clusters of counties across the state have experienced spikes in new cases, state data shows.

The jump in confirmed infections comes amid broader testing for the virus and as the state loosens restrictions on movement and businesses.

The state Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 5,442 new cases from June 7 to Saturday, an increase of 8.2% from the week of May 31. The 5,028 cases reported the week of May 31 was up 23% from the 4,089 cases reported the week of May 24.

In total, Georgia has reported week-over-week increases in four out of the past five weeks after four weeks of gradually declining cases.

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Though confirmed cases are up, hospitalizations remain well below levels reported early last month. On May 1, 1,500 people confirmed to have COVID-19 were hospitalized, according to state data. The state reported 865 current hospitalizations on Tuesday, though that figure has trended up in recent days.

Ben Lopman, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said Georgia is essentially on an elevated plateau in cases.

“We’re much closer to the beginning than the end of this,” he said.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Georgia on Tuesday stood at 833. The rolling average peaked at 866 on April 13 during the statewide shelter-in-place order, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis shows.

Nationally, 20 states and Puerto Rico have seen growth in reported cases over the past 14 days, according to the New York Times, including in each of Georgia's neighboring states. The rate of new cases nationwide, however, has essentially plateaued in recent weeks, and deaths have trended downward.

Confirmed cases generally are a snapshot of the virus from several days or perhaps two weeks ago, because a person often does not seek a test until they exhibit symptoms. It might take days before results are known.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp receives information about a community COVID-19 testing site from Public Health District 2 Director, Dr. Pamela Logan (right), in the parking lot of La Flor de Jalisco #2 during a visit to Gainesville, Friday, May 15, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Gov. Brian Kemp instituted a statewide shelter-in-place order in April that helped flatten the significant rise in COVID-19 cases. The stay-at-home order ended for most Georgians on April 30, except for the elderly and medically fragile.

The order for most elderly people ended last week, though it remains in effect for the medically fragile through the end of June.

Kemp, citing improving conditions, loosened restrictions on many businesses. For instance, there no longer are limits on the sizes of parties within eateries. As of Tuesday, gatherings of up to 50 are allowed without social-distancing requirements.

Health officials continue to urge people to socially distance, wear masks, regularly wash hands and stay home if sick.

State officials said increased testing is responsible for capturing more cases.

In some counties, outbreaks at long-term care facilities, among migrant farm workers, military recruits and from house parties have been reported.

Many outside public health experts have been critical of Kemp's approach to reopening the economy. The governor has said he is guided by data and advice from health professionals, including Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state's commissioner of public health.

Among the data Kemp has said he follows are hospitalizations and bed capacity, ventilator and intensive care capacity, testing, new cases, conditions at nursing and long-term care homes and supplies of protective gear.

“As the Governor has said multiple times before, he is making these decisions to safely reopen Georgia based on the data mentioned above and the advice of Dr. Toomey and DPH to protect the lives — and the livelihoods — of all Georgians,” Cody Hall, a Kemp spokesman, said in an email.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, said the trendlines are troubling for a state continuing to ease restrictions.

“We’re not just opening, we’re opening amusement parks and group convenings and playing pretend,” Heiman said. “We’re pretending that we don’t have a continuing, serious pandemic with community spread.”

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email that so far no definitive links have been made between street demonstrations that have occurred daily since the end of May and COVID-19 cases.

“It is still a little early to tell what impact there may be,” she said.

Testing shows spread in Gwinnett

Gwinnett County recently overtook Fulton for the highest number of confirmed cases, reporting 5,308 cases as of Tuesday.

State data show climbing infection rates in Chattahoochee, Harris, Muscogee and Troup counties in West Georgia, and several counties around Valdosta in South Georgia.

Dr. Audrey Arona, the CEO and district health director at the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Department, said the increase in cases is tied to more testing in Gwinnett.

But she also said the positive test rate in Gwinnett was higher than the state average of 8.5%.

One recent day at a newly opened testing center at the Lilburn First Baptist Church, 27% of those who were tested were shown to have COVID-19.

Arona called the increase “a good thing” as more young people are diagnosed. Hospitalizations and deaths have not risen at the same rate.

“We want to know,” Arona said. “We’re trying desperately to try to stop the transmission of this.”

On Tuesday, Gwinnett County Commissioner Ben Ku urged residents to continue to shelter in place if they can.

“Assume you are infected and everyone else is infected, and act accordingly,” he said.

Hayla Folden, the public information officer for District 4 Public Health in LaGrange, which covers 12 counties south and west of Atlanta, said contact tracing has connected cases to parties in Troup County. Troup also has seen outbreaks at the county jail and a nursing home, Folden said.

Troup reported 805 cases, as of Tuesday, which is more than double the cases reported June 5. Sixty-two cases were tied to the nursing home.

COVID-19 deaths

The weekly death count in Georgia generally had been on a decline since the previous peak of 267 the week of April 26. But reported deaths reached a new high of 268 last week, up 54% from the week before.

Deaths typically come weeks after initial infection. The date a death is reported by DPH is often several days or even weeks behind the date of the actual death as officials work to confirm a cause.

Nydam said the state’s epidemiologists recently improved the process to match vital records and COVID-19 data, which contributed to last week’s jump in confirmed deaths.

Some of the deaths reported last week occurred in April, most were in May and some happened this month, Nydam said.

Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this report.