Georgia was the first US state to reopen amid coronavirus pandemic. What are Georgia’s COVID-19 reopening results? Was it prudent for Georgia to reopen early?
On April 20, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp announced that his state would begin to re-open on April 24, which would allow businesses – including restaurants, hair salons, and gyms – to resume operations1. Mr. Kemp was faced with a barrage of criticism from local leaders, particularly those in the state’s metropolitan areas of Atlanta2 and Savannah3, and President Donald Trump lamented Mr. Kemp’s decision as “too soon.”4 Now, more than two weeks later, how prudent has Georgia’s decision to reopen been?
How Prudent Has Brian Kemp’s Decision Been To Re-Open Georgia?
The infection statistics during the re-opening were not conducive to an amelioration of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic: there were more than 200 new cases per 100,000 residents per week in nine counties, the majority of which were in the state’s southwest and suggesting a significant outbreak there, indicating that the state had been unable to put the virus to rest despite Mr. Kemp’s decision suggesting otherwise.5 To make matters worse, Georgia had tested less than 1% of its population5; as of May 05, the state had conducted 183,325 tests, only 50% of the state’s testing goal, and which accounted for 1.73% of the state’s population.6
COVID-19 Impact on the United States
Although the United States’ testing capacity has been limited nationwide, Georgia’s was one of the lowest in the nation; for comparison, Louisiana, which has a similar number of case positives to Georgia, had tested 212,157 people as of May 9, 4.6% of its population and 265.9% more per capita than Georgia.7 The limited testing capacity has meant that how far the virus has spread in Georgia’s urban centers is still largely unknown, and even more so than in states with a larger testing apparatus. One study, which analyzed antibody samples in a representative sample of Atlanta, estimated that 7.1% of metro Atlanta residents had tested positive, or 101,149 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 population estimate for the region.8
COVID-19 Death Rate in the United States
If the virus’ fatality rate is taken to be 1.3% in the United States, as estimated by a Health Affairs publication, then this would mean that the state’s southwest, where the virus’ spread in rural communities has been extensive, has significantly undercounted its rate of infection.9 Dougherty County, home to Albany, was one of the country’s most heavily-affected in early April, with more than 1,700 cases per 100,000 people.10 The area’s status as a hotspot was largely attributable to a superspreader event that took place at a funeral on February 29.11 The county had reported 1,589 cases and 126 deaths as of May 1010, suggesting a fatality rate of 7.9%, far greater than the Health Affairs estimate and suggesting a significant undercount. If the virus’ estimated fatality rate is compared with the documented number of deaths, it can be estimated that 9,692 residents in Dougherty County have been infected with COVID-19.10 Even disregarding the unknown extent of unrecorded deaths in the region, that would indicate that more than 11% of county residents had contracted the virus, making it one of the worse outbreaks in the country.10
Dougherty County’s COVID-19 Cases
Dougherty County, by number of cases per 100,000 people, only ranked fifth statewide.10 All the four counties above it on May 10, 2020 – Randolph, Terrell, Early, and Calhoun Counties – were of close geographic proximity to Dougherty, suggesting a protracted outbreak in the region.10 The four counties combined had recorded 709 cases and 73 deaths, suggesting that if a similar analysis is conducted in line with the Health Affairs estimate, at least 5,615 people across all four counties had contracted the virus, or 18% of all four counties’ residents.10
Georgia COVID-19 Testing
Despite significant concerns over the lack of testing and undercounting in Georgia’s southwest, there appear to be signs of progress. As of May 10, Georgia had conducted 235,324 tests, which accounted for 2.21% of the state’s population7; the state had met its goal set by Kathleen E. Toomey, Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, of 100,000 tests in ten days.12 But still, a joint study between Harvard’s Global Health Institute and NPR says that the state’s testing is not enough for social distancing measures to be lifted.13
Although the rate of infection in Georgia’s urban areas has slowed, and is where local officials wish to prevent a flare-up in new COVID-19 infections, the state’s rural, semi-urban, and ex-urban counties are only beginning to feel the virus’ brunt.
Georgia’s COVID-19 Hot Spots: Hall County
Mr. Kemp identified Hall County as one of the state’s emerging hotspots.14 According to the county’s average new cases per day as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, new cases had risen from approximately thirty-five per day on April 18 to seventy-five per day on May 5.14 Hall County’s population is comparatively large to smaller, more rural counties; it’s home to the city of Gainesville, and the county has more than 200,000 residents.15 But this doesn’t mean that new infections are isolated to urban or semi-urban centers.
Hancock County: Fastest COVID-19 Infection Rate
As of May 10, 2020, Hancock County was seeing the sharpest rise in COVID-19 infections in the state; the county had recorded 128 cases and 3 deaths, in a county of only 8,400 residents, meaning there were 1,500 cases per 100,000 people.10 The state’s largest community, Sparta, did not receive significant testing apparatus until last week, which has resulted in the precipitous rise of recorded infections in the county.16 Of those that tested positive, almost half were in local nursing homes.16
Conclusion: Georgia’s Reopening COVID-19 Results
Hancock County is a testament to what is going on behind the scenes in Georgia as the state’s testing capacity remains comparatively low compared to other states with similar outbreaks. With the virus spreading undetected throughout the state, especially in nursing homes that house Georgia’s must vulnerable, Mr. Kemp’s decision to relax the state’s social distancing guidelines appears misguided. The number of new cases statewide has only plateaued in recent weeks, but it is still unclear the extent of the state’s pandemic given limited testing capacity. Given Georgia’s many unknowns, it does not appear prudent to remove lockdown measures or relax social distancing guidelines, particularly when many ex-urban and rural areas are only beginning to experience the brunt of the pandemic.
- “Gov. Kemp Updates Georgians on COVID-19.” Governor Brian P. Kemp Office of the Governor, 20 Apr. 2020, gov.georgia.gov/press-releases/2020-04-20/gov-kemp-updates-georgians-covid-19.
- Bragg, Trason. “Atlanta Mayor Calls out Gov. Kemp on State’s Reopening.” CBS46 News Atlanta, 7 May 2020, http://www.cbs46.com/news/atlanta-mayor-calls-out-gov-kemp-on-states-reopening/article_e45c0366-900b-11ea-9156-fb601daca14c.html.
- Evans, Sean. “Savannah Mayor Displeased with Gov. Kemp’s Decision to Begin Opening Businesses.” WTOC-TV, 21 Apr. 2020, http://www.wtoc.com/2020/04/21/savannah-mayor-displeased-with-gov-kemps-decision-begin-opening-businesses/.
- Rojas, Rick. “Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Apr. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/us/trump-georgia-governor-kemp-coronavirus.html.
- Lash, Nathaniel, and Gus Wezerek. “Why Georgia Isn’t Ready to Reopen, in Charts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/24/opinion/coronavirus-covid-19-georgia-reopen.html.
- “How We Reopen Safely.” How We Will Beat COVID-19, http://www.covidexitstrategy.org/.
- “Most Recent Data.” The COVID Tracking Project, covidtracking.com/data.
- Zou, Jun, et al. “Antibodies to SARS/CoV-2 in Arbitrarily-Selected Atlanta Residents.” MedRxiv, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1 May 2020, http://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.01.20087478v1.
- Basu, Anirban. “Estimating The Infection Fatality Rate Among Symptomatic COVID-19 Cases In The United States.” Health Affairs, 7 May 2020, http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2020.00455?utm_campaign=covid19fasttrack&utm_medium=press&utm_content=basu&utm_source=mediaadvisory&.
- “Georgia Coronavirus Map and Case Count.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Apr. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/georgia-coronavirus-cases.html.
- Barry, Ellen. “Days After a Funeral in a Georgia Town, Coronavirus ‘Hit Like a Bomb’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/us/coronavirus-funeral-albany-georgia.html.
- Abdul-Malik, Jade. “Despite 100K COVID-19 Tests in 10 Days, Georgia Lags In Mass Testing.” Georgia Public Broadcasting, http://www.gpbnews.org/post/despite-100k-covid-19-tests-10-days-georgia-lags-mass-testing.
- Stein, Rob, et al. “U.S. Coronavirus Testing Still Falls Short. How’s Your State Doing?” NPR, NPR, 7 May 2020, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/07/851610771/u-s-coronavirus-testing-still-falls-short-hows-your-state-doing.
- Raymond, Jonathan. “Here’s How the Hall County COVID-19 Case Trend Looks.” 11Alive.Com, 8 May 2020, http://www.11alive.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/hall-county-coronavirus-trend/85-67862628-d381-4ec4-a3ab-38272ee201a3.
- “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Hall County, Georgia.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/hallcountygeorgia.
- Modersitzki, Tanya. “Elected Leaders, Residents React to Hancock County’s Soaring COVID-19 Cases.” 41NBC News | WMGT-DT, 8 May 2020, 41nbc.com/2020/05/08/hancock-countys-covid-19/.
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