White House pushing Georgia to do more to slow spread of COVID-19

Although White House officials are pushing Georgia to do more to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Brian Kemp said Tuesday that the responsibility rests with individual Georgians, as he implored them to take precautions over Thanksgiving.

The holiday comes at a perilous moment for the state. Although the virus is spreading more slowly in Georgia than in 40 other states, according to figures kept by The Associated Press, the number of infections is still rising rapidly and approaching the peak Georgia saw in late July.

The Republican governor repeated the same guidance he’s been giving Georgians since summer, that they should wear masks, keep their distance from others, wash their hands, and follow Kemp’s rules, including bans on large gatherings. The governor said he wasn’t planning any other measures, such as a statewide mask mandate, or renewed restrictions on businesses.

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“Our citizens are the ones that solved the problem after July 4th, because people did what we asked them to do. And we’re asking them to do that again going into Thanksgiving,” Kemp told reporters. “If we do that, we’re going to get on the backside of this little bump that we’re seeing.”

Experts, starting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, disagree.

“Georgia has seen an increase in new cases and stability in test positivity and is in the early stages of full resurgence,” the task force wrote in a report dated Sunday. “This is the moment to dramatically increase mitigation.”

The seven-day rolling average of daily COVID-19 cases has been rising for nine weeks, and is up more than 75% since the state began reporting rapid antigen numbers at the beginning of the month, standing just under 3,500 cases a day on Tuesday. The rate of newly reported infections has accelerated over the last week.

Harry Heiman, a public health professor at Georgia State University, said Kemp was wrong to call Georgia’s situation a “little bit of an uptick.”

“We are in a full crisis,” Heiman said. “We have case numbers now that are similar to the case numbers at the peak of the surge in the summer.”

Where Georgia stands has been confused by the increasing prevalence of rapid antigen tests, as well as the even worse situation in other states. Georgia counts molecular tests separately from antigen tests, and only began releasing daily counts of antigen tests earlier this month. The website that reports daily results is geared only to molecular tests, although Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said Tuesday said officials treat them the same.

“Just to be clear, those antigen positives are dealt with just like any other positive,” Toomey said.

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Toomey said a rising volume of tests in recent days may be an attempt by people to get cleared to see family members, and again urged people to consider staying away.

“If you get tested today, and you’re negative, it does not mean that you will not be positive in a day or two or three,” Toomey said. “And so it’s particularly important that we don’t use their COVID test as a justification to go and not follow the guidelines.”

Amber Schmidtke, an epidemiologist who writes a daily report on Georgia’s COVID-19 situation, said Kemp is wrong to rely on personal responsibility to prevent spread over Thanksgiving.

“If this were a successful strategy, we wouldn’t have a pandemic any more,” Schmidtke said. “If we could trust people to put others’ needs ahead of their own, it would have been vanquished over the summer.”

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has also been rising for weeks, and is up 50% to about 1,900. Georgia has recorded more than 450,000 confirmed and presumed cases of the respiratory illness since March, and more than 9,200 confirmed and probable deaths. Not everyone shows symptoms, and most people recover, but a small fraction sicken and die.

A group that coordinates hospital patient flow showed that nine intensive care units statewide were full on Tuesday, including at all three hospitals in Augusta, as well as at hospitals in Marietta, Athens and Dublin. Nearing capacity were ICUs at two hospitals in Columbus and two of Emory University’s largest hospitals in Atlanta.

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Against those concerns, the White House task force and other experts continue to push for more efforts, including a statewide mask mandate, a reduction in the number of people allowed indoors in places including bars and restaurants, and proactive testing of a sampling of different groups including teachers, students, public employees, hospital workers and nursing home workers to try to detect the spread of the virus..

Kemp, though, who was among the first governors to lift earlier restrictions, said he doesn’t “see any reason to take any additional steps right now.

“It’s a virus. It’s going to spread we’re not going to stop it until we get the vaccine and we continue to just keep the fight for, you know, months ahead,” Kemp said. “But we can limit the spread and people are following the guidelines.”

Tuesday was the first time Kemp held a news conference regarding the virus since Oct. 7.

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