New White House report warns of Georgia’s ‘fragile’ coronavirus improvement

Gov. Brian Kemp rolled out a “Four Things for Fall” campaign Tuesday that urged Georgians to wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow his statewide guidelines to “beat COVID-19 and secure a safe, healthy and prosperous future for our state.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Gov. Brian Kemp rolled out a “Four Things for Fall” campaign Tuesday that urged Georgians to wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow his statewide guidelines to “beat COVID-19 and secure a safe, healthy and prosperous future for our state.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kemp considers re-deploying National Guard 'strike teams'

The latest report from President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force shows Georgia had the second-highest rate of new coronavirus infections in the nation over the past week, and it continues to urge state leaders to impose a mask mandate and other restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s office countered Tuesday by pointing to recent statistics that show signs of improvement and said it was considering deploying Georgia National Guard “mobile strike teams” to nursing homes, religious institutions, schools and colleges to better contain the disease.

The White House report states that Georgia remains in the red zone for cases and the yellow zone for test positivity. It notes that Georgia has made modest gains containing the number of new cases and in the number of infections linked with nursing homes, though it again warns that those improvements are “fragile” without more aggressive actions.

Georgia’s standing in the new White House report dated Sunday marks an incremental improvement from a week ago, when Georgia had the highest rate of new cases of the coronavirus.

Like previous reports, it recommends a statewide mask mandate in most Georgia counties and urges Kemp to close bars in counties with rising rates of positive cases. First obtained by WABE News and the Center for Public Integrity, it also encourages new efforts to protect nursing homes.

In a statement, Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce pointed to recent statistics that show a roughly 23% drop in new cases per 100,000 people. And she said Georgia is making other “notable declines” in the number of cases, hospitalizations and positivity rate.

To increase testing capacity, she said Kemp is considering redeploying new National Guard “mobile strike teams” to areas struggling with a surge in cases. That could include dispatching troops to colleges in the University System of Georgia that have had several recent outbreaks with the return of students.

Kemp previously deployed National Guard strike teams to nursing homes to help with testing and cleaning facilities.

ExploreGeorgia colleges push for more testing as coronavirus cases rise on campus

“This strategy has worked well to address hot spots — such as Albany and the surrounding community and the Gwinnett County area — and offers the right kind of flexibility should we need to quickly move between outbreaks,” she said.

Recent outbreaks

The governor has recently lashed out at news coverage of the pandemic, triggered by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report of last week’s report from the White House task force, which has long raised concerns about Georgia’s strategy to fight the disease.

Kemp accused the AJC of playing “pandemic politics” and sparking panic, and he said the news media “only focuses on the bad numbers — they never focus on the good numbers.”

07/23/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Michelle Sheffield (left) of Snellville speaks to Cody Hall (right), press secretary for Gov. Brian Kemp, as she and others ask about the governors move to not mandate masks statewide and his lawsuit filed against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during a visit to the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, July 23, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Caption
07/23/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Michelle Sheffield (left) of Snellville speaks to Cody Hall (right), press secretary for Gov. Brian Kemp, as she and others ask about the governors move to not mandate masks statewide and his lawsuit filed against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms during a visit to the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, July 23, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

He and his aides highlighted metrics that have showed a recent decrease in the rolling average in new cases over the past seven days and a roughly 20% decline in the hospitalization rate since the most recent peak at the end of July.

Georgia reported week-over-week case increases in nine out of 10 weeks from early May through mid-July, peaking the week of July 12, according to an AJC analysis of state data.

Cases have declined in each of the past five full weeks. But the current seven-day rolling average of cases, which was 2,382 on Tuesday, is still nearly four times the rate reported on June 1, and nearly every county in Georgia is considered by state Department of Public Health guidelines to have substantial spread.

The AJC report on the task force’s Aug. 16 recommendations noted several indications of modest improvements in recent weeks, including the decline in hospitalizations. It also included White House recommendations that Georgia officials make “continued, expanded and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools.”

On Tuesday, the DPH reported 2,101 net new cases of the coronavirus, and 106 net new deaths. More than 258,000 Georgians have contracted the coronavirus and 5,262 have died from the disease, according to the latest state public health data.

Among the latest deaths was a 14-year-old girl from Habersham County who suffered from a chronic condition, according to the DPH. It is unclear when the teen died. To date, the deaths of four children have been attributed to COVID-19 in Georgia.

On Tuesday, the governor rolled out a “Four Things for Fall” campaign that urged Georgians to wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash their hands and follow his statewide guidelines to “beat COVID-19 and secure a safe, healthy and prosperous future for our state.”

Testing extended at mega-site

The latest White House report continues to urge Georgia to take many of the same steps it previously recommended, including reducing indoor restaurant seating to 25% capacity in the highest-risk counties, and to limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Georgia’s current limit is 50 people.

“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 report further urges the state to increase testing, particularly in nursing homes, schools and colleges.

“Nursing homes are a reflection of ongoing high levels of community spread. Ensure social distancing and universal face mask use,” it states. “Immediately conduct infection control surveys in all nursing homes with 3 or more cases per week over the last 3 weeks.”

In a news conference last week, Kemp said demand for testing has fallen with declines in community spread. But state and federal officials have extended a testing “mega-site” near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport through Sept. 11. It had been slated to close Wednesday.

School systems and universities across Georgia have reported outbreaks since the start of in-person instruction. Often those outbreaks are associated with off-campus activities.

The White House recommends universities with sophisticated lab equipment for viral RNA detection use it to expand surveillance testing in schools and colleges.

“Any university with an outbreak must have a plan to test all students and protect the surrounding community from university outbreaks,” the report said.

As the rate of new case counts has declined, particularly in metro Atlanta, about two dozen Georgia counties have been removed from the White House task force’s red zone. In metro Atlanta, they include Cherokee, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Still, 82 Georgia counties remain in the White House red zone, down from 109 the week earlier. Counties in the yellow zone are far from out of the woods.

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