An increasing number of Georgians are getting infected by the coronavirus and ending up in the hospital as Gov. Brian Kemp continues to ease restrictions on gatherings and businesses.
Figures posted Tuesday show that Georgia has reported an average of 777 infections over the last 14 days, the highest level since April, when widespread transmission was at its peak and had led to a statewide lockdown. After falling, the number of infected people in a hospital has been rising for the past 10 days, reaching 875 on Tuesday.
The number of deaths statewide passed 2,500 on Tuesday, and the state continues to average about 30 deaths a day. If people continue to die at the same rate, that would put Georgia on pace for about 8,500 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year.
“I see the numbers going back up and the restrictions in terms of policies going back down, which is nonsensical,” said Harry Heiman, a professor of public health at Georgia State University. “We are only having such a sustained plateau at such a high level and now seeing cases going back up because we were in such a hurry to open back up.”
Kemp, a Republican, said he remains focused on fighting the infection, saying Tuesday that Georgia has now tested every resident of a nursing home with 25 or more beds.
In nursing homes, 1,139 residents have died, 45% of all deaths statewide. Of about 6,400 infected residents, 3,500 have recovered, the Department of Community Health said.
Across all long-term care facilities, the governor says, authorities have tested 77% of residents.
“In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to ensure that vulnerable Georgians have the care and resources that they need as we work to limit exposure and spread,” Kemp said in a statement Tuesday.
Nancy Nydam, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, attributes rising infection numbers in part to increased testing. But that shouldn’t be driving increased hospitalization numbers, Heiman said.
Kemp was one of the earliest governors nationwide to begin loosening restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. Further changes took effect Tuesday, including abolishing the limit on how many people in the same party can sit together at a movie theater and allowing people to walk in without an appointment to personal care businesses such as barber shops and tanning salons.
Kemp is allowing conventions of more than 100, spectator sports and live performance venues to resume operations July 1, subject to restrictions.
“For a governor who started out saying he was going to have the data guide him, it’s pretty stunning,” said Heiman, who described the lowered restrictions as “a whole lot of things that are going to make us go from bad to worse.”
While Republican House Speaker David Ralston said Tuesday that he thought Kemp had managed the crisis well, Democrats have been critical.
“Quite frankly I think he shut this state down too late and opened up too soon,” House Democratic Caucus Chair James Beverly of Macon said Monday in a webcast. ”We believe in science and math, and the science says people are still getting it and the math says it’s still going up.”
One area of concern is suburban Gwinnett County, which passed Fulton County on Monday for the largest number of infections statewide, after having a relatively low reported infection rate.
Local public health officials have opened a new testing site in Lilburn, where positive test rates have been higher than the state average. DeKalb County on Monday opened a testing site in nearby Doraville. Both areas have large immigrant populations.
The spread of the illness among immigrants also has been a source of concern in south Georgia among farmworkers, where groups of workers in Echols and Lanier counties, east of Valdosta, have tested positive. Echols County, a hub for vegetable production, now has far and away the highest infection rate in the state.
“Contacts were quarantined and outbreaks were quickly mitigated reducing the risk of spread in the communities as a whole,” Nydam said.
Also being disproportionately hit are African Americans. They make up 32% of Georgia’s population but account for 42% of infections where the race of the patient is known.
Also Tuesday, Emory University announced that its Rollins School of Public Health will work with the Department of Public Health to fight COVID-19, aiding with planning, providing faculty, students and staff to help investigate outbreaks and trace contacts. It also will place at least one epidemiology fellow in each of the Georgia’s 18 public health districts and provide research including a randomized study of 1,200 Georgia households to understand the illness’ prevalence.
The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation is donating $7.8 million to fund the Emory effort.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.