Opinion: Gov. must act now to stop COVID-19, save lives

As the state of Georgia faces once again an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, we must act swiftly to avoid a potential critical shortage of hospital beds and ensure the safety of the citizens of Georgia.

During the past week, we have seen a sharp spike in cases that cannot be accounted for by increased testing. We also are seeing a very troubling increase in hospitalizations that, if continuing, will overwhelm our healthcare infrastructure, not only in metro Atlanta but also in rural Georgia. Meanwhile, while testing has been scaled-up, we still do not have access to enough testing, and contact tracing is in its infancy. Georgia is simply not prepared for a surge in cases and hospitalizations. So much more can be done by our state leaders to save lives and protect our citizens from avoidable illness.

It is time now to reassess our reopening and consider what has worked well and what is not working. The governors of Texas and Florida have recently decided to halt the reopening of bars. It is our recommendation that Gov. Brian Kemp and the state of Georgia take steps to increase social distancing by closing bars and nightclubs, and prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, including in houses of worship. This is especially crucial in advance of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Businesses that can operate through telecommuting should continue to do so. Those businesses that must maintain on-site staff should require that their employees use facemasks, maintain social distancing by staying 6 feet apart and consider further reducing the number of people present within buildings. If we do not take these steps now, this will result in a continued increase in hospitalizations and, ultimately, deaths.

The science is now clear that face coverings are critical for the control of COVID-19. We recommend a statewide face-covering requirement similar to North Carolina. We are encouraged to see Gov. Kemp and his staff leading by example, wearing a mask whenever they convene in public. Gov. Kemp and the state legislators should communicate clearly to our citizens the importance of wearing face coverings and why we must behave at all times as if we are potentially contagious. Our governor and leaders must reiterate that we don’t wear a face covering only to protect ourselves but also to protect others. Our leaders must speak candidly to Georgians about the challenges of wearing face coverings, and offer options for those who cannot tolerate a face mask, such as wearing a face shield. Our goal should be having nearly 100% of our population wearing a face covering in public when we are indoors or when we are outdoors and cannot maintain 6 feet between ourselves and others.

Finally, we ask that Gov. Kemp immediately empower mayors and county officials around the state to institute requirements that are appropriate for their jurisdictions. Georgia has many local epidemics across the state, and citizens deserve that their elected officials have the freedom to respond appropriately to safeguard their health. Savannah alone has had to close a dozen establishments because of COVID-19 infections. It is increasingly important that mayors and local officials have the tools they need not only to manage, but to avoid, community transmission and outbreak clusters.

We must act now knowing that these actions will have immediate impact, although it may take weeks to see cases decrease. We understand that new restrictions may have an economic impact on businesses, but the economic impact of rising infections will be equally – or more - damaging. Controlling the spread of COVID-19 will ultimately lead to improved economic outcomes as we adapt to the virus and learn to conduct business safely. Furthermore, unless we can control this epidemic and once again begin to see a decrease in cases, we will not be able to safely send our children to school in the fall, which will have long-lasting repercussions on their education, health, and well-being.

We understand that Gov. Kemp has had to deal with political considerations. At this time, however, we urge Gov. Kemp and our leaders to put politics aside and to make the health and safety of Georgia’s citizens their foremost concern. To the legislators of Georgia, we say that successful control of the virus will be their biggest political victory.

We hope that Gov. Kemp and his staff will listen to our plea.

Jesse Couk, M.D. is chair of Infectious Diseases, Shepherd Center, and assistant director of Infection Control, Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. Sophie Lukashok, M.D., is president of the Infectious Diseases Society of Georgia. Melanie Thompson, M.D., is principal investigator at the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta. They submitted this as well on behalf of the Concerned Healthcare Workers of Georgia, the Infectious Diseases Society of Georgia and the Department of Infectious Diseases at Emory University.