Kemp stands pat as White House, experts urge action to combat virus’ surge

‘I don’t see any reasons to take any additional steps right now,’ Georgia’s governor says.

President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force this week warned Georgia is “in the early stages of full resurgence” of the virus and urged state leaders to take aggressive new steps to mitigate spread of the epidemic.

The latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the state should ensure universal mask use and significantly reduce capacity or close public places — such as bars and restaurants — where face covering isn’t possible.

“This is the moment to dramatically increase mitigation,” the report, dated Sunday, said.

At a media briefing on the virus Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp let the moment pass.

Kemp urged Georgians to mask up, limit holiday gatherings and follow existing health guidance. But he did not announce any new restrictions or a statewide mask mandate as many doctors and public health experts outside his administration have also urged him to do.

“I don’t see any reasons to take any additional steps right now,” Kemp said. “We have plenty of (hospital) capacity. I speak constantly with our hospital CEOs. We’re watching not just one number but every number, daily.”

The autumn wave has battered much of the country, bringing record highs in cases and hospitalizations, straining medical capacity in the Great Plains, Upper Midwest and Mountain West. Georgia remained in the red zone for new cases and ranked 48th — or fourth best — out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in terms of the rate of new cases, the White House task force reported. That ranking is unchanged from a week ago.

“Thankfully, when you compare us with the rest of the country, I’m ecstatic where we are,” Kemp said. “I’m also concerned where we could go if we don’t have people follow the guidance and best practices, especially over Thanksgiving.”

112420-Atlanta-Gov. Brian Kemp holds a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 24, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol to talk about the current state of coronavirus in Georgia. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Still, the seven-day rolling average of confirmed cases has more than doubled since the most recent low point at the beginning of October.

If “probable” cases from antigen tests are added to the mix, Georgia reported its worst week last week in new cases since the summer surge in July.

The rolling average of currently hospitalized people, meanwhile, is up by about 45% since its most recent low point on Oct. 12. As of Tuesday, Georgia’s overall hospital bed occupancy was about 80%, but five of the state’s smaller hospital districts, including those covering Athens, Augusta and Rome, reported 10 or fewer available ICU beds, respectively.

At his media briefing, Kemp disputed that the state is seeing a spike, calling the rise in cases “a bump.”

Kemp said Georgians failing to follow public health guidelines led to the summer surge, which led to hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths.

“Our citizens are the ones that solved the problem after July Fourth,” Kemp said. “People did what we asked them to do.

“We’re asking them to do it again going into Thanksgiving. If we do that, we’re going to get on the back side of this,” Kemp said, pointing to the eventual distribution of several promising vaccines.

Health experts, however, told the AJC that more forceful measures are needed now before the virus spirals out of control.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said the state needs to do more to stop the virus, starting with a statewide mask mandate, rather than the current piecemeal system of local ordinances.

“The reality is we have a bad problem in our country,” he said. “I don’t want to wait for the state to have a terrible situation before we take action. Before the baby drowns you want to do something.”

Studies have indicated masks are effective at mitigating spread and that compliance with mask mandates is higher than strongly urging face coverings as Kemp has done, del Rio said.

Several states, including Iowa, North Dakota and Utah recently enacted new mask mandates and more than a dozen states extended or enacted new restrictions on gatherings and occupancy within restaurants and bars.

Restrictions on indoor dining, bars and nightclubs might also be necessary in Georgia as the weather turns colder and people do more indoors where the virus tends to spread, said Ben Lopman, an epidemiologist at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

“A lesson that we’ve learned from this pandemic is the earlier you act the better,” he said. “It makes so much more sense to act before things are out of control, before the epidemic has taken off.”

112420-Atlanta-Dr. Kathleen Toomey speaks to journalists during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 24, 2020 at the Georgia State Capitol to talk about the current state of coronavirus in Georgia. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

‘We can stop this’

On Tuesday, Georgia reported 2,452 net new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and an additional 1,384 “probable” cases as determined by rapid antigen tests. Georgia also reported 12 additional deaths attributed to the virus.

To date, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) has reported 408,644 confirmed cases, 46,088 antigen positives and 8,648 confirmed deaths. Another 573 deaths are considered “probable” COVID-19 deaths.

Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s health commissioner, implored Georgians to protect themselves and others over the Thanksgiving weekend, wash hands, wear masks and socially distance. They said large Thanksgiving gatherings traditionally held indoors and in-person should be modified or held virtually to protect medically fragile loved ones.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DPH last week urged Americans to avoid travel over Thanksgiving and to keep holiday gatherings contained within their households because of heightened risk of the coronavirus.

DPH recommends Georgians bring their own food, drinks, plates, cups and utensils if attending a gathering outside their home and to wear a mask when not eating. The guidance also suggested using single-use condiment packets and dressings and disposable food containers and dinnerware.

If hosting, DPH said it is safer to do so outdoors with a limited number of guests and to disinfect commonly touched surfaces between uses. If sharing food, the state suggests having a designated server.

Many people are getting tested right now to see if they’re negative in order to visit family and friends, said Toomey. But testing isn’t foolproof.

A person might be exposed after their test and later be contagious, or a person might not have a viral load large enough to trip a test when taken.

“Right now, Georgia is still lower than other states,” she said of the case rate, “but we’ve seen a steady uptick in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But we can stop this.”