White House warns of ‘widespread and expanding’ COVID-19 spread in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp listens as U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams speaks during a press conference at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport paid parking facility in College Park, Monday, August 10, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gov. Brian Kemp listens as U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams speaks during a press conference at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport paid parking facility in College Park, Monday, August 10, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

New report calls for mask mandate, closing some businesses and other measures Gov. Brian Kemp has rejected.

President Trump’s coronavirus task force warns that Georgia continues to see “widespread and expanding community viral spread” and that the state’s current policies aren’t enough to curtail COVID-19.

The task force “strongly recommends” Georgia adopt a statewide mandate that citizens wear masks, joining a chorus of public health officials, Democrats and others who have warned that Gov. Brian Kemp’s refusal to order face coverings has plunged the state into deeper crisis and will prolong recovery.

“Current mitigation efforts are not having a sufficient impact,” the report said.

Businesses, such as nightclubs, bars and gyms, currently open with some restrictions in Georgia, should be closed in the highest risk counties, the report said.

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The task force recommends restricting indoor dining at restaurants, now limited only by the number of diners who can be safely distanced six feet apart, to less than one-quarter of dining room capacity. Social gatherings, now capped at 50 people in Georgia, should be limited to 10 or fewer people.

Georgia also needs to ramp up testing and contact tracing statewide, the report said, and testing and infection control measures need to be expanded in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendations for Georgia, dated Aug. 9, from a source.

Dr. Melanie Thompson, principal investigator of the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta, said it is frustrating that the report is only seeing the light of day because of a leak.

“These are public health data and they should be publicly available,” she said.

Most states require masks

Though Kemp has encouraged Georgians to wear masks, Georgia is one of 16 states without some form of statewide mask mandate. Kemp said he believes a statewide requirement is unnecessary and unenforceable.

Kemp’s emergency orders explicitly bar cities from enacting mask mandates or enacting any measures stricter or less restrictive than his.

On Thursday, Kemp withdrew that a lawsuit challenging the city of Atlanta’s mask mandate and business restrictions, but officials say he plans a new order by Saturday that would specify that local governments can’t order private businesses to require masks.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said the White House recommendations are not political and are based on sound science.

Del Rio is part of a group of more than 2,000 medical professionals who have urged Kemp in a pair of open letters to enact a mask mandate and curtail operations of bars, gyms and nightclubs and to allow local governments to institute tough restrictions if necessary.

“We’re not doing anything and we’re hoping magically numbers are going to go down,” he said of Georgia’s coronavirus response. “Hope is not a strategy.”

Gov. Brian Kemp (left) watches as U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams prepares to self-administer a COVID-19 test during a press conference at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta Airport paid parking facility in College Park, Monday, August 10, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Gov. Brian Kemp (left) watches as U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams prepares to self-administer a COVID-19 test during a press conference at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic located in a Hartsfield-Jackson International Atlanta Airport paid parking facility in College Park, Monday, August 10, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The AJC asked Kemp’s office why the governor has refused to follow the task force recommendations to close businesses such as bars and nightclubs that are at high risk of spread.

Kemp spokesman Cody Hall did not directly answer the questions.

“Gov. Kemp continues to rely on data, science, and the public health advice of Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey and her team in our state’s ongoing battle against COVID-19,” Hall said, referencing the state’s public health commissioner. “As the governor has said many times before, this fight is about protecting the lives — and livelihoods — of all Georgians.”

Hall said the state is expanding its testing resources, including a new North Carolina-based lab partner and the recently opened temporary testing “mega-site” at the Atlanta airport. Georgia has reported 25,000 or more new tests in eight out of the past nine days, Hall said.

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In addition to federal supplies, the state has partnered with long-term care centers to boost testing and Hall stressed other steps the state has taken to control infections.

But COVID Exit Strategy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public health initiative, estimates Georgia is only testing about one-quarter the amount it needs to per day to curtail the virus.

Swift criticism

Kemp’s critics reacted to the White House report with dismay and anger.

State Rep. William Boddie, one of the top Democrats in the House, questioned why the governor is refusing to act more decisively.

“He needs to adhere to the science. He says he’s looking at data, but I’m asking what that data is telling him,” Boddie said. “Georgia is in the top tier of COVID-19 cases in the country. It doesn’t make any sense to me. We need to mandate masks and a uniform way of attacking the coronavirus. And it has to start with him.”

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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is among several mayors who, frustrated by Kemp’s rollback of restrictions, have defied his order and imposed their own limits.

In a statement, Bottoms said “the science and data clearly show that Georgia remains on a dangerous trajectory.”

“We will never get to the other side of this pandemic if we do not heed the warnings of our health professionals and wear masks, practice social distancing and stop behaving as if COVID-19 will suddenly disappear,” she said.

The disastrous reopening of some school districts has also filtered to the campaign trail.

“We’re not doing anything and we’re hoping magically numbers are going to go down. Hope is not a strategy.”

- Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System

State Rep. Beth Moore has collected more than 650 tips from students, parents and teachers about problems in schools since in-person learning resumed in some districts, and she’s been among the more vocal critics of Kemp’s coronavirus policy.

“Governor Kemp is aligning himself with anti-science extremists who believe that masks don’t help, the virus is a hoax and we should all just bury our heads in the sand and pray the virus goes away,” said Moore, a Peachtree Corners Democrat. “The fact that a school whistleblower effort is even necessary to ensure the protection of students, faculty and their families demonstrates how poorly Kemp has handle the coronavirus pandemic in Georgia.”

Some Republicans say more needs to be done. State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, on Thursday said he would introduce legislation next year that would speed the availability of same-day test coronavirus test results and create a new state certification for businesses who comply with health state safety guidelines.

‘Seeing the consequences’

Georgia was one of the last states to order its residents to shelter in place in April and one of the most aggressive states to reopen its economy. 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.

In the three full weeks since, Georgia has reported a slight decline in weekly cases, but the seven-day rolling average remains more than five times the level reported at the beginning of June.

On Thursday, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 2,515 net new cases of the virus, and 82 net new confirmed deaths.

The White House report examined data from Aug. 1 to Aug. 7 and was a follow up to one dated July 26 that labeled Georgia as one of 21 states in the “red zone.” The new assessment found Georgia’s case rate declining slightly, but new case growth and the numbers testing positive for the virus still put Georgia in the red zone.

Georgia’s rate of spread remained nearly double the national average, the task force said.

Deaths, meanwhile, have been climbing.

On Tuesday, DPH reported a record of 122 net new confirmed deaths, followed by the second-highest daily total Wednesday of 105. To date, 4,538 deaths in Georgia have been attributed to COVID-19.

Georgia also has set weekly records for reported deaths in each of the past three weeks.

“I hate to say it, but we are not doing enough in Georgia and we are seeing the consequences,” del Rio said.

Of Georgia’s 159 counties, 109 are in the task force’s red zone for transmission and test positivity, including Clayton among the core 10 metro Atlanta counties. Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett and Rockdale are in the yellow zone.

The White House report also reveals information not previously disclosed by DPH, including test positivity by county during the week of Aug. 1 to Aug. 7. Most Georgia counties report test positivity of greater than 10%, including much of east and southeast Georgia which were greater than 20%.