Why DeKalb officials are worried about Hall County’s COVID-19 outbreak

Hall County, the northeast Georgia community that's home to Gainesville and the "poultry capital of the world," has seen a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

And some 40 miles away in DeKalb County, the outbreak has government and health officials worried.

“It keeps me up at night, to be quite honest with you,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said this week.

DeKalb — which already has the state’s second-highest total of confirmed COVID-19 cases but has managed to keep its death toll comparatively low — does not neighbor Hall County in any way. Anyone hoping to travel between the two is looking at close to an hour’s trip down I-85.

DeKalb, though, is home to a large number of Latino residents, immigrants and refugees that make the trip daily in order to work in Gainesville’s chicken plants and similar facilities.

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Things may cut both ways, of course, with folks from DeKalb contributing to the spread in Hall. Definitive conclusions will be hard to come by.

But as the statistics in Hall County grow, DeKalb officials are concerned about the potential impact in their own county.

Zip-code level data analyzed by the AJC suggests DeKalb's biggest coronavirus hotspots remain in southern and eastern parts of the county — areas with large African American populations. As of Monday, black residents accounted for about 62% of cases where a patient's race was reported.

But the most recent data also suggests DeKalb zip codes that include sizable Latino populations, like the Buford Highway corridor near Brookhaven and Chamblee, may be seeing an increase in COVID-19 diagnoses.

Thurmond said the county recently provided 500 coronavirus “care kits” — complete with masks and sanitizer — to be distributed at Plaza Fiesta, a shopping mall near Brookhaven.

“We're going to be much more aggressive in improving our ability to reach out to non-English speaking populations in DeKalb,” Thurmond said.

Dr. Elizabeth Ford, DeKalb County’s district health director, said she “absolutely” shares the CEO’s concerns.

“We’ve been working very closely with Hall County and with (DeKalb’s) Clarkston community to make sure that they understand what precautions they as employees can take, and making sure that we make testing available to them,” she said.

Clarkston has been dubbed the “Ellis Island of the South,” a landing place for scores of refugees from around the world. Many of those refugees pack into vanpools each day to head to Hall County for work.

Dr. Safia Pirani, who runs a health clinic in Clarkston, said that’s “just not a good situation” for things like social distancing and other preventative measures. Language barriers and often-cramped living quarters — which can prevent those diagnosed with the virus from properly isolating — don’t help.

“We are really trying our best, but the hurdles are there,” Pirani told the AJC last month.