New report links Georgia virus surge to Memorial Day gatherings

Chamber-tied coalition urges Georgians to mask up, limit groups as Labor Day nears.
Georgia officials prepare for Memorial Day 'like no other'

Georgia officials prepare for Memorial Day 'like no other'

Travel and gatherings over the Memorial Day weekend and a failure to wear masks and socially distance were contributing factors in Georgia’s summer coronavirus surge, a new report published Tuesday said.

And Georgia might suffer another resurgence of COVID-19 in the weeks ahead if residents let down their guards again this Labor Day weekend, public health experts said.

Georgia’s surge in new cases accelerated the second week of June and was initially focused outside metro Atlanta in border counties and communities with tourism-based economies, according to the report by Amber Schmidtke, a former Mercer University professor and one-time Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expert in microbiology and immunology.

The virus then spread in metro Atlanta counties, reversing gains those counties had reported in the few weeks between Georgia’s reopening April 24 and Memorial Day. Overall, Georgia reported a more than 600% increase in the daily rolling average of cases from Memorial Day to July 11, the peak of the summer surge based on reported onset of symptoms, according to Schmidtke’s analysis of Georgia Department of Public Health data.

Georgia posted increased cases in nine out of 10 weeks from mid-May through mid-July, state data show.

Though weekly confirmed cases have fallen in each of the past six weeks, at least by date of report, Georgia remains in “a shaky spot,” Schmidtke said.

“We have made some gains, but we are not back to where we were prior to the summer surge and we are about to head into the influenza season,” she said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Schmidtke has closely followed Georgia’s epidemic and publishes regular newsletters. She authored the report at the request of Get Georgia Well, a coalition of business and civic groups sponsored by the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Central Atlanta Progress and the Georgia Hospital Association.

Schmidtke urged Georgians to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and confine group gatherings to fewer than 10 people. None of those steps are mandated by the state, though local governments have enacted a patchwork of mask orders.

Georgia reported among the highest rates of new cases in the U.S. during the surge. For about a week in mid-August, Georgia’s summer surge made Georgia the highest in the nation for per capita transmission of the virus, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Georgia dropped to second in the White House task force report dated Aug. 23, and the latest report issued Sunday dropped Georgia to seventh.

Georgia remains in the “red zone” for new cases of COVID-19, according to the newest White House report. The White House Coronavirus Task Force said Georgia reported 148 new cases per 100,000 people in the seven days that ended Friday, nearly double the national rate.

Kemp to promote ’Four Things for Fall’

On Monday, DPH reported 1,498 net new cases of the virus and 28 net new deaths. To date, more than 270,000 people in Georgia have contracted the virus and 5,632 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.

The rolling average of new coronavirus cases is about three times what it was before Memorial Day.

The White House task force continues to recommend Georgia limit restaurant capacity to 25% in the highest-risk communities, and close gyms, bars, nightclubs and other businesses in these areas where social distancing is unlikely.

The White House also urges a restriction on gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Georgia’s current limit is 50.

The latest White House report did not include a recommendation for a statewide mask mandate, something it has pushed in recent weeks.

More than 2,000 medical professionals have urged Gov. Brian Kemp to enact a statewide face covering mandate in recent weeks, with many echoing the White House guidelines.

Kemp has rejected a compulsory masking order, though he urges face coverings and recently allowed local governments to enact face covering mandates on public property and to allow enforcement on private property only if business owners opt-in.

Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, said the governor’s office will continue to promote its “Four Things for Fall” initiative that urges Georgians to wear masks, keep their distance, wash hands regularly and follow public health guidance and that of his executive orders.

Broce said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, will also work to spread the word about this initiative and appear in a video later this week.

Prior to the July Fourth holiday weekend, as COVID-19 cases rose and hospitals started to exhibit strain, Kemp and public health officials barnstormed the state on a media tour urging Georgians to wear masks and follow public health guidelines.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp prepares to speak at the Peachtree Dekalb Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, July 1, 2020. Governor Kemp and Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey will take part in a "Wear a Mask" Flyaround Tour of Georgia, encouraging Georgians to follow the guidance of public health officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 ahead of the 4th of July Weekend. (REBECCA WRIGHT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

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Credit: Rebecca Wright

Expert: COVID like a fire

Schmidtke said the July Fourth weekend did not have the same effect on disease transmission as Memorial Day.

“It is possible that news reports of overwhelmed hospitals discouraged many from participating in their usual Fourth of July festivities, which aided in limiting disease transmission,” she said in her report. “It is an important reminder of the power we have as individuals to interrupt the spread of this illness in our communities.”

Schmidtke also examined potential impact of protests that swept parts of the state in the wake of the death of George Floyd and found that “it doesn’t appear that the protests were a large driver of disease transmission.”

Many of the protests occurred in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Though cases of the virus grew in those counties in June and July, they were not hot spots in the rate of case growth compared to population as many rural Georgia counties were.

FILE - In this June 1, 2020, file photo, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young holds a "Black Lives Matter" sign during a peaceful rally in his hometown of Norman, Okla., calling attention to the killing of George Floyd. While NBA players are using the season restart to demand change; coaches in the league are not making them walk down that path alone. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

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Credit: AP

Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center and associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, described COVID-19 like a forest fire.

“We know COVID-19 is spread through person-to-person interactions,” Wu said. “Any activities that involve large numbers of people, particularly if they’re from different families or different parts of the state will give opportunities for this virus to spread. This outbreak can ebb and flow much the same way as a forest fire can be contained and flare up again.”

Wu said people should not misinterpret a declining rate of cases to mean safety, as areas that have had the virus under control have lost that control.

Wu said people traveling need to carefully plan trips to limit stops and social interactions. Travelers should pack food if they can. Preparing meals for yourself and family or using restaurant takeout is generally safer than dining in eateries.

If choosing to dine in, pay close attention to whether or not a restaurant is following public health protocols. Dining on a patio or outdoors is safer than indoors, he said.

“I still encourage folks not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary,” Wu said. “The more preparation and research in advance the better.”

Wu and Schmidtke also recommended people get a flu shot. Though the influenza vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, the two viruses present very similar symptoms, at least initially. And co-infections of the two viruses are possible.