Georgia playing catch up in coronavirus testing

A medical professional in protective equipment collects a sample from a potential COVID-19 patient at a Phoebe Putney Health System drive-through testing site in Albany on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Well off the interstate some 180 miles south-southwest of Atlanta, Albany has struggled with an outbreak of the coronavirus. (HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM)

Gov. Brian Kemp announced this week the purchase of scarce supplies and equipment needed to vastly expand the state's capacity to process tests for the coronavirus. But the state still has a long way to go to catch up with the rest of the nation.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of testing data shows Georgia near the bottom for testing per capita. This is despite ranking 11th, as of midday Wednesday, for total confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and seventh in overall deaths.

On Tuesday, Kemp also announced a partnership between the state, the University System of Georgia and Emory University. In the days ahead, the governor’s office said, the state’s public health lab and labs at Augusta University, Emory and Georgia State will be capable of processing 3,000 coronavirus tests per day.

At that rate, the facilities will be able to process more tests per week for Georgia patients than the total number of tests performed since the first cases were confirmed in the state in early March.

Kemp said at a Wednesday press conference that “expanding testing remains a top priority for me.”

“We all know that the status quo is unacceptable, and I certainly appreciate their innovation,” Kemp said of the partnership. “We will continue to innovate and push so all Georgians who need a test for COVID-19 can do so in a safe and convenient way.”

As of noon Wednesday, the state’s public health lab and commercial labs combined had processed 20,326 tests of Georgians, up 25 percent from 16,181 only 24 hours earlier. The increase reflected reports by additional labs and improved electronic reporting, according to the state.

Still, the AJC analysis of national testing data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project found Georgia ranked 41st per capita in testing as of noon Wednesday.

Minnesota, with roughly half of Georgia’s 10.6 million population, has processed about the same number of tests as the Peach State. Smaller states — including Louisiana, Massachusetts and New Jersey — had processed about twice as many or more.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the Georgia State Capitol building, in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday. During the presser, Gov. Kemp ordered all Georgia K-12 schools to be closed until the end of the academic school year. He also said he will sign an order on Thursday forcing a “Stay-at-home” order for all Georgians until April 13. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Testing in Georgia has grown in recent weeks. The state and hospital groups have established drive-through testing in about two dozen locations. But testing remains available mostly for only the very sick, those who live in group setting such as nursing homes, and emergency and health workers.

In a news conference Wednesday, Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s commissioner of public health, stopped short of saying when restrictions on testing might be loosened.

The new state processing capacity will ramp up total tests administered and return results faster. Lessening the lag time for results will give officials a clearer picture of the virus’ spread.

Public health experts welcomed the state’s new test processing capacity. But they said far more Georgians need to be tested to understand the scope of the outbreak.

“We continue to hear from the governor and public health commissioner that we’re making our decisions based on data, and I continue to scream that we don’t have adequate data to guide us in the way we need to be guided,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State School of Public Health.

Kemp said he will sign an executive order to take effect Friday instructing Georgians to shelter-in-place through April 13.

Toomey said confirmed cases will rise as testing expands. But community mitigation, including sheltering-in-place, are vital to curb the spread.

“Even as we expand testing more broadly, as more testing becomes available, we can’t test our way out of this crisis,” she said. “We have to take the community mitigation measures that have been proposed now.”

‘A national problem’

The COVID-19 data released by the state twice a day is typically days old, showing a snapshot of where the virus was then — not now.

The Atlantic magazine reported Wednesday that national labs such as Quest and LabCorp are swamped with pending tests and haven't been able to scale up fast enough to meet demand. Local Georgia labs, meanwhile, have capacity to process tests, but have been stymied by red tape and shortages in supplies.

Kemp and top Georgia hospitals have urged people with mild to moderate symptoms not to seek tests and to ride out their illnesses in isolation at home. That was, in part, to preserve testing supplies and prevent the spread of COVID-19. That advice appears likely to remain in place, at least for now.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, answers questions from the media during a press conference at Liberty Plaza, across the street from the Georgia State Capitol building, in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Kemp said though test availability is improving, “our capacity has been limited due to the number of reliable and available tests.”

“As many of you have reported, competition among states for access to commercial labs is obviously at an all-time high,” he said.

But all states are confronting similar issues. The AJC analysis shows that on a per capita basis, Georgia lags all but 10 states and Puerto Rico.

Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Emory epidemiologist, said the state’s processing expansion shows Kemp is making testing a priority.

“He’s listening to public health (experts), and he’s doing the right thing,” Del Rio said.

But Del Rio said now is not the time for healthy people anxious about the disease to seek tests as the state works to clear its backlog of pending tests.

Del Rio said South Korea leads the world in testing on a per capita basis at about 1 percent of its population. The U.S., by contrast, has tested a little more than 1 million of its 330 million, or about one-third of 1 percent of the population.

After a slow start, testing has grown in the U.S., where more total tests have been performed overall than in any other nation.

“This is a national problem. It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Del Rio said.

Virus moves quickly

Heiman, the Georgia State professor, said Georgia ranks near the bottom in health outcomes and risks nationwide. Chronic conditions that are more common in Georgia than most states — such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease — make more Georgians vulnerable to COVID-19.

A rampant outbreak of COVID-19 has made the Albany area one of the hardest hit places in the world, per capita. Dougherty County, home to Albany, ranks near the bottom of Georgia's 159 counties in health outcomes, Heiman said.

“You see what happens when you introduce a virus to a population that’s already at high risk,” Heiman said. “It moves very, very quickly and in devastating ways.”

Heiman said cases of COVID-19 are spreading to poor and rural counties with limited testing and health care capacity. That’s why expanding testing, including more drive-through facilities, is vital, he said, to understand the penetration of the disease.

“In counties with one case, these cases don’t happen in isolation,” he said. “If you have one case, you have many, many others and I suspect we may have many more explosions on the horizon.”

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