Following possible peak in deaths, Kemp working on when to reopen Ga.

Georgia may have turned the corner on the number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus, new projections suggest. But officials and health experts cautioned the state is not yet in the clear.

A widely cited model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its projections Friday afternoon and indicates Georgia passed its peak for virus-related deaths on April 7, when 100 deaths in its model projections were attributed to COVID-19. The projections also said Georgia hospitals may have reached their peak use of resources last Wednesday.

Some researchers remain skeptical of the model’s predictions. It previously forecast that deaths and the need for hospital resources would not peak in Georgia until near the end of April, or even into May.

The development was welcomed as "great news" by Gov. Brian Kemp on Saturday, but he and other leaders emphasized that Georgia must keep its restrictions in place for the time being. The virus continues to claim the lives of Georgians every day; the Department of Health reported nine new deaths related to COVID-19 on Saturday, bringing the total number to 677up from 432 a week ago. The number of confirmed cases in the state rose to 17,841.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

“People think the peak is the moment we can stop paying attention to this, and that’s not the case,” said Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. “It doesn’t mean that you’re done.”

The IHME model has been cited by White House officials and public health experts in Georgia. It has informed state and local leaders’ decisions on business closures and social distancing rules.

The update comes as Kemp is devising a plan to eventually roll back restrictions and reopen parts of Georgia’s economy, and the new projections could factor into his decisions. He talked over the phone with other governors in the Southeast on Saturday afternoon about plans to reopen the states.

He said his office is “cautiously optimistic” as it reviews other data and models “for verification.”

“In preparing for our next measured step forward, we are following the data and advice of public health officials,” Kemp said. Soon, “we will outline when and how Georgians can safely return to work and normal activities.”

A medical worker (left) and traffic control employee both wear masks on the campus of Emory University Hospital Midtown on Friday. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM


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When is it time to reopen?

The Seattle-based IHME estimated that relaxing social distancing may not be possible until after June 15, when daily deaths are down to zero.

The update shows Georgia is “doing the right thing,” del Rio said in an interview, but he emphasized that restrictions should be kept in place until the state is able to ramp up its coronavirus testing. Georgia has been criticized over a lack of widespread testing for the virus. The state ranks among the worst in the proportion of citizens tested, but recently announced it was expanding testing.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Saturday brushed off the idea that the city or state could reopen within the next few weeks. In an appearance on MSNBC, the mayor said she doesn’t have “any expectation that anything will change” by early May.

“I received my high school senior’s graduation invitations in the mail and I’m trashing them. They’re dated for May 9,” Bottoms said.

The IHME predicted that the total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Georgia could be about 1,400; that estimate is down from more than 3,700 just days earlier.

The model changed because the IHME took new factors into account, including the state’s new social distancing mandates, said del Rio, the executive associate dean for Emory at Grady Health System. Starting Friday, the model also started using cell phone data to assess the impact of social distancing.

Several experts have criticized the IHME model and said officials should not solely rely on it to make crucial public health decisions. Other models have suggested that Georgia may not have hit its peak yet. None of these models are precise, the experts caution; they are estimates.

Volunteers assemble food bags before the start of the City of College Park's first pop-up grocery store on Saturday, April 18, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC


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But del Rio said the IHME’s projections are reliable for real-time decision-making because they are adjusted based on the latest policies and data. The IHME said its daily reported deaths in its model may not always reflect the exact number of people who died from the virus on a certain day, since reports can sometimes lag.

The Emory expert said the outcomes could change again and emphasized that some hospitals are more strained than others. Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia, for example, became so overwhelmed with coronavirus patients in late March that Kemp authorized the Georgia National Guard to send doctors and medics to help.

Economic burden continues

The weekend also brought another wave of food distribution events across the metro area, underscoring the far-reaching economic impact of the virus and the growing need for necessities across the metro area.

Members of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marietta hold signs telling motorists about the church's food giveaway Saturday, April 18, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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With swaths of the economy shut down, thousands of workers have suddenly found themselves out of a job and have turned to free food giveaways for help, sometimes waiting in long lines of cars. On Saturday, people picked up basic supplies in Fairburn, Marietta and College Park.

At the Fairburn drive, about 300 union families received produce, meat and other essentials from the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, which represents about 60,000 employees in unions across 18 metro Atlanta counties.

“We wanted to do anything we could to stand behind those workers and say, ‘We are here for you,’” said Sandra Williams, the executive director of the council. She called the food drive a “labor of love.”

Williams estimated that 60% of the group's members have been laid off because of the virus. Many, she said, have not yet received unemployment benefits. Statewide, the Georgia Department of Labor has processed about 861,000 claims for jobless benefits – more than one-sixth of the state's work force – in the four weeks through April 11.

“We try to be there in good times and in bad,” Williams said, “and right now, this pandemic has certainly presented a crisis.”