Georgia governor pushes back against reports of high COVID-19 infection rates in state

CGinspiration/iStockBy MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News

(ATLANTA) — Georgia has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States, according to recent reports on per capita cases — a data point Gov. Brian Kemp pushed back against on Wednesday.

According to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s current model on COVID-19 risk, as of Monday, Georgia had the highest number of daily new cases per 100,000 people in the country. The institute’s recommendation at the state’s risk level is to implement stay-at-home orders.

An Aug. 16 White House Coronavirus Task Force report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution also found that Georgia had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases. The number — 216 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending Friday — indicated that the state is in the “red zone” for cases, the report said, and recommended that Georgia do more to limit the spread of the virus, such as issue a mask mandate in counties with 50 or more active cases and limit gatherings to 10 people.

Georgia does not have a statewide mask mandate, and social gatherings are currently limited to 50 people.

By most metrics, numbers are improving in the state. An ABC News analysis of state coronavirus trends found that as of Wednesday, daily new cases, daily current hospitalizations and the daily positivity rate in Georgia were all decreasing.

Kemp focused on those figures Wednesday during a press briefing in which he lashed out at the leaked White House report.

“Right now, our hospitalizations are down 18.8% since our peak on July 30,” the Republican governor said. “That’s the lowest level since July 13. Our seven-day average of new cases reported are down 26% since our peak on July 24, and they’re the lowest since July 8.”

The test positivity rate was down to 9.7% on Tuesday from 14% on July 17, he added.

“If we’re the highest percent per capita in the state right now, that’s because Texas and Florida and Arizona and some of the other states that were peaking a week or two ago are on the downclimb, just like we are,” Kemp said. “But that is not the only number that Georgians need to look at.”

Kemp said that the per capita rate is going up because the state has been focused on testing areas where there is high spread.

“We’re contact tracing where we have outbreaks, and when you do that, your percent positive is going to be higher than if you just test everybody everywhere,” he said.

In an update on COVID-19 trends released last week, the state health department noted several “emerging hot spots” where there was growing or high transmission. One of the areas was northwest Georgia, where the increase was “driven partially by many outbreaks in manufacturing facilities,” it said. Rural areas in the middle of the state, including Bleckley and Appling Counties, also were seeing increased community transmission.

Appling County has the highest infection rate among Georgia counties, based on the Harvard Global Health Institute rankings. The testing positivity rate in Appling is 26.7%, according to the state health department — more than double the statewide rate.

The per capita data comes as Georgia has been a flashpoint in the national debate on reopening schools. In recent weeks, schools starting with in-person learning have had to quarantine students and staff, or have even had to temporarily close their doors again amid new outbreaks of COVID-19. In Cherokee County, over 2,000 students have been quarantined.

Still, some schools in areas with high levels of transmission are continuing to reopen. In Appling County, schools reopened with in-person learning this week.

When asked about Cherokee County, Kemp said that the cases “didn’t happen in the schools for the most part.”

“It happened because people came back to school and they already had the coronavirus,” he said. “So is that the government’s fault? Is that the school’s fault? No, it is not.”

The White House report recommended that the state expand testing, particularly in schools.

“Georgia’s small gains are fragile and statewide progress will require continued, expanded and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools,” it stated.

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