Surgeon General urges masks as Gwinnett gets federal COVID assistance

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged Georgians to keep their masks on through the holiday weekend as he ended his daylong tour of the state in Gwinnett County.

The nation’s chief public health official joined Gov. Brian Kemp on the “Wear a Mask” campaign Thursday, covering cities from Dalton to Savannah.

“Wearing a face covering or a mask is not a restriction of your freedom,” Adams said. “As a matter of fact, this is an instrument of freedom because we know if we wear face coverings we will have less spread in our communities and more places will be open.”

READ | Gwinnett organization hires mothers to make masks at home

As Adams stressed the importance of mask usage on the tour Thursday, members of a federal COVID-19 response team were working with Gwinnett County health officials to find more ways to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. Gwinnett has the highest number of total cases of any county in the state, and has seen a steady uptick in case numbers since mid-May.

As of Thursday, there had been 8,619 cases and 173 deaths reported in Gwinnett, according to the latest information posted by Georgia Department of Public Health. Of those cases, 1,119 required hospitalization.

COVID-19 Response Assistance Field Teams, referred to as CRAFT, are being deployed in areas across the country with high case counts ahead of the July Fourth holiday weekend in order to identify additional ways to prevent further community spread. In Gwinnett, they met with “community partners,” including those from the Black and Hispanic communities, and examined testing and epidemiology processes to “figure out where the gaps are,” said Chad Wasdin, a spokesman for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Departments.

The visit won’t have immediate impact – the team is expected to write a report of their findings and deliver it to the local health department – but will provide new strategies in the near future, Wasdin said.

As of June 29, Gwinnett's positive case rate was 12.4% of the 66,339 tests administered at health department test sites in the county. That's higher than the statewide rate of 8.9%. In June, one Gwinnett test site reached a positive case rate of 27%.

Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Director Audrey Arona and Wasdin have attributed the rise in part to expanding testing. The county recently opened a third test site in Lilburn that allows walk-up tests and is easily accessible by public transportation.

Cases began to decline statewide while Georgians were under a shelter-in-place order, and reached a low point in the days after the order was lifted for all but the most vulnerable. But numbers spiked starting June 1 and have continued to rise. Gwinnett followed a similar pattern, with cases reaching their lowest point since the shelter in place order in early May, but resuming an upward trend soon afterward. The daily case numbers have been growing in Gwinnett ever since, topping 200 per day through the last two weeks in June. Georgia saw record case numbers for two consecutive days July 1 and 2. July Fourth gatherings could lead to further spread if guidance on social distancing and mask usage is not followed, Adams said.

Adams indicated he didn’t believe Kemp should implement a statewide mask mandate, which 1,400 Georgia healthcare workers asked for in a letter July 2. Instead, he urged education about the effectiveness of wearing a mask to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“If you wear a mask now, we can have college football in the fall. If you wear a mask now, we can have proms this upcoming school year,” Adams said. “What works is positive incentives instead of sticks.”