Georgia coronavirus cases continue record surge

Governor urged to empower mayors, county officials to impose their own measures to combat the spread

Georgia shattered its record for new COVID-19 cases for the second day in a row Thursday, as calls grew for Gov. Brian Kemp to take swift action to contain the virus’ alarming spread.

In a single day, more than 1,400 health care workers signed an open letter to Kemp calling on him to shut down bars and restaurants, ban indoor gatherings of more than 25 people, mandate masks, and free local governments to institute their own rules to halt the spread of the disease.

“Georgia is simply not prepared for a surge in cases and hospitalizations,” the letter warned Thursday. “You have the power to do much more to save lives and protect our citizens from avoidable illness.”

Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus jumped to 3,472 Thursday, up 18 percent from the day before, bolstering warnings that the disease may be spreading out of control.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

» NEW DASHBOARD: The AJC's redesigned page of real-time charts tracking the virus

In Fulton County, the heaviest burden continues to be borne by the Black community, according to data shared Thursday by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during a conference call with city council members. More than 45% of the new COVID-19 cases in Fulton County have been in Atlanta, she said. And 51% of those cases and 86% of the deaths were among African-Americans.

Still, some local health departments announced they would pause testing for the Fourth of July holiday weekend, risking further strain on a system that is already showing signs of struggling to meet increased demand.

“Needless to say, the coronavirus won’t be taking a holiday,” said Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “We’re already having challenges with having access to testing. This is just one more step from bad to worse.”



Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce stressed that the governor and Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey are basing their decision on data and Toomey’s expertise. She did not respond directly to the letter’s contents.

“We will continue to use this approach in our battle against COVID-19, relying on the underlying science and epidemiological data to move forward in a measured way,” Broce said.

DeKalb alerts residents

Kemp travelled north Georgia Thursday with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams as part of his "Wear a Mask" tour to encourage residents to use them voluntarily. Kemp has repeatedly said he doesn't plan to require them.

Later, Dr. Adams appeared at Gwinnett County’s health department, which has been battling an increase in cases with drive-thru testing sites.

“Wearing a face covering or a mask is not a restriction of your freedom,” Adams said during his visit. “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.”

Test demand is so high in Gwinnett that results can take three to five days, its website states.

In Cobb and Douglas counties, the health department reversed a decision to take a holiday break Friday and reopened its testing site at Jim Miller Park south of Marietta.

Yet the concern over the increase in cases has not always matched local response. In DeKalb County, CEO Michael Thurmond sent a recorded phone message to residents warning them of the rise in cases.

“Protect yourself and others. Wear a mask when you go outside. Practice social distancing. Stay home when possible. Wash or sanitize your hands often. And get tested,” Thurmond’s message said.

Still, DeKalb County’s health department joined those in the Macon area and elsewhere by closing down their testing for the holiday weekend. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter attempted to book a test online on Thursday at sites in DeKalb and could not find an available slot earlier than Tuesday.

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A state Department of Public Health spokeswoman said “many” testing sites remained open, but did not give specifics.

The closings of test sites is troubling, Heiman said, because patients will be unable to know for days whether they put their friends and loved ones at risk.

“Our failure to mount an appropriate response is really amazing,” Heiman said.

Doctor’s dire warning

Months of deep divisions on how Georgia should respond to the pandemic are playing out across the state. This state was a leader in taking steps to reopening its economy, and Vice President Mike Pence called it an “example to the nation.” A Wall Street Journal opinion writer chimed in, dubbing Kemp’s approach “the Georgia model.”

Epidemiologists, however, predicted that easing restrictions before the state met White House criteria for reopening would lead to a surge in new cases.

Now that surge is here and accelerating. Testing is becoming difficult to find, and experts expect deaths to rise in two to three weeks.

"Our failure to mount an appropriate response is really amazing." —Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health

One city is taking matters into their own hands. As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, Savannah became the first city in Georgia to require the use of masks, setting up a potential legal showdown with the state. Kemp has used an executive order to block local governments from passing restrictions that are more strict or lenient than those statewide.

And in the medical community, the letter signed by 1,400 healthcare workers continues to gain signatures, organizers said, signaling deep frustration among some members.

“You acknowledged that you are dealing with political considerations, but we urge you to rise above the political to make the health and safety of our citizens your foremost concern,” the letter states. “Successful control of the virus will be your biggest political victory.”

Dr. Jesse Couk helped launch the effort to write the letter late last week after noticing that Kemp was not wearing a mask in public. Meanwhile, he noticed cases rising at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, where he is assistant director of infection control, and statewide.

“I have personally seen young people die from this,” said Dr. Couk, who is also chair of infectious disease at the Shepherd Center. An out-of-control pandemic means that parents cannot safely send their children to school and makes it impossible for the economy to rebound.

The sacrifices that Georgians made when businesses, schools, government offices, cultural institutions and other locations shut down are going to waste, he said.

“The fact that we’ve undone so much of the hard work people did in April when they stayed home is so frustrating,” Dr. Couk said.

Staff writers Amanda Coyne, Tyler Estep, Maya Prabhu and J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.