White House says Georgia now leads nation in rate of new virus cases

'Georgia’s small gains are fragile,' new report says.

Georgia reported the highest rate of new cases of the coronavirus in the country in the seven days ending on Friday, President Trump’s coronavirus task force said in its latest report, urging the state again to take stronger action to mitigate spread of COVID-19.

Though conditions in some areas of Georgia have improved modestly in recent weeks, the White House Coronavirus Task Force said Georgia remains in the red zone for severity of the outbreak as measured by rate of case growth and test positivity.

“Georgia’s small gains are fragile and statewide progress will require continued, expanded, and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools,” according to the White House report, which was dated Sunday.

Georgia’s public colleges and universities are opening for the fall semester, and some colleges will offer a blend of distance and in-person learning. The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill recently retreated to digital learning because of clusters of new infections.

In Georgia, a number of local schools systems have also reopened for in-person instruction, though infections have so far led to temporary school closures in Cherokee and Paulding counties. School quarantines have been reported in Floyd and Jackson counties.

Georgia reported 216 cases per 100,000 people in the week ended Friday, a rate that is about double the national average, the White House report said. The report was not released publicly, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy from a source.

A team of Georgia Tech and Stanford University researchers, meanwhile, rated Georgia through Sunday as having the highest per-capita circulating infection rate in the nation, followed by Florida and Louisiana.

Much of the language from the task force report echoes earlier task force assessments, but three previous reports reviewed by the AJC did not explicitly rank Georgia against other states for rate of case growth.

The Trump coronavirus task force continues to recommend Georgia close bars and gyms and restrict indoor dining at restaurants to one-quarter capacity in the highest risk counties. Social gatherings, now capped at 50 people in Georgia, should be limited to 10 or fewer people, even within families.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp made modest concessions to his long-stated objection to a mask mandate, but he has steadfastly resisted retreating from Georgia’s permissive limits on restaurants, businesses and gatherings.

“Cases seem to be coming from within households,” the report said. “It is essential that all citizens are limiting gatherings and protecting the members of their households with co-morbidities.”

The federal report also recommends a statewide mask mandate for counties with more than 50 active cases of the virus, a new threshold that was not previously included in past reports. That threshold would still cover almost every county in the state.

The report also said Georgia is not conducting enough tests to help identify and isolate outbreaks and calls for increased testing and use of personal protective equipment in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

Georgia has conducted about 27,000 tests per day over the past three weeks, but that figure is about one-quarter of what’s needed to help contain the outbreak, according to COVID Exit Strategy, a non-partisan public health initiative.

The latest White House report again encourages “community-led neighborhood testing” to deeply penetrate areas at high risk for spread. Health experts say the state’s drive-thru testing model can overlook poor residents who are unable to access testing centers because they lack access to cars.

071520 Atlanta: Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. The visit focuses on a rule change designed to make it easier to process environmental reviews.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

icon to expand image

Credit: Curtis Compton

The report recommends Georgia use university and hospital resources to expand testing for surveillance in nursing homes and schools.

In a statement late Tuesday, Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said Georgia has reached recent milestones in the fight to contain the pandemic, including a declining rate of hospitalizations and a decreasing number positive tests over the last week.

He said the data is encouraging and accused the newspaper of “stoking fear and division with leaked reports and sensationalized news.”

Cases decline from peak

Georgia reported week-over-week case increases in nine out of 10 weeks from early May through mid-July, peaking at 25,471 cases the week of July 12, according to an AJC analysis of state data. Cases have declined in each of the past four full weeks.

Last week, the state reported 21,741 net new cases, a decline of about 15% from the peak, led by improvements in metro Atlanta. The seven-day rolling average of positivity overall has declined to just under 10%, one of the White House thresholds of being in the red zone.

The World Health Organization and White House guidelines call for sustained positivity rates of 5% or less to get the virus under control.

Current hospitalizations also have declined from a peak of 3,200 on July 30 to 2,596 reported on Tuesday.

But deaths have followed the spike in new cases. Georgia reported 461 net new deaths last week, a new weekly high.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health said that though Georgia has reported modest improvements, “we’re still very much in a crisis.”

On Tuesday, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 2,816 net new cases and 67 net new deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, Georgia has reported more than 241,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 4,800 deaths.

Heiman said more needs to be done or Georgia will risks enduring an elevated plateau of infections or another potential spike.

Debate over masks

Kemp has long criticized face covering requirements as unnecessary and unenforceable, and he said this week that “I don’t believe you have to have a mask mandate to do the right thing.”

But he softened his approach with an executive order on Saturday that clears the way for more cities and counties to impose mask mandates for the first time. The new stance came shortly after he abandoned a lawsuit challenging the city of Atlanta’s mask mandate and other restrictions.

Under the order, face covering requirements can only be enforced in private businesses if the owner consents. It also limits fines to $50, requires authorities to issue a warning before they can write a citation, and says business owners can’t be held liable if their customers refuse the requirement.

He cast the new approach in a teleconference call this week as an effort to “save lives, protect paychecks and safeguard personal freedoms.” City and county officials across the state are now debating whether to adopt a requirement that fits Kemp’s guidelines.

“We’re giving the local governments now the opportunity to do a masking ordinance if they would like. They don’t have to,” he said. “I think you’ll see a lot of communities where they won’t. Some obviously have already done that or will.”

The AJC also obtained a copy of a CDC report Tuesday showing Georgia is one of seven Southern states with two weeks or more of consecutive days with a “downward trajectory” in new daily cases.

But the report, covering July 26 to Aug. 9, shows Georgia’s new case growth remains more than four times the CDC threshold for high rate of spread.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark, a microbiologist and a critic of Kemp’s approach, said the latest White House report underscores how the governor needs to shift his stance.

“There’s probably very little I agree with the White House on. But this is one of those times,” said Clark, a Democrat. “Georgia is in a red zone and we need to govern ourselves accordingly. And a sign of true leadership is to say, ‘I got it wrong. Now is the time to pivot and do something about it.’”

Staff writer Ben Brasch contributed to this report.