Late to shut down, first to reopen, Georgia reports its highest daily death toll


It wasn’t easy for Jenny Hunter to send her kids back to school this fall, but she knew it was the better of two impossible choices for her family.

“I’m well aware of the clinical risks for children,” Hunter, a nurse and mother of two in Cherokee County, just outside Atlanta, told USA TODAY on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m not a teacher, and neither is my husband. I felt the benefit versus the risk was better to get them in person for their education.”

Minutes after hanging up, Hunter received a text from her son: His high school would be temporarily closing for two weeks after 14 students tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I was not surprised at all,” Hunter said. “My son was saying how low in volume some of his classes were throughout the day because of kids getting quarantined. It was becoming a question of when, not if.” More than 1,600 students and staff are in quarantine this week as cases rise in Georgia – a state that has received criticism for its inaction and mixed signaling on the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the last states to institute a shelter-in-place order and the first to reopen businesses, Georgia is now seeing a rising number of COVID-19-related deaths. The state reported 136 deaths Tuesday – its most in a single day since the beginning of the pandemic – and another 109 deaths Wednesday, according to the state’s department of health. Dr. Harry Heiman, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, said that with high numbers of hospitalizations and full ICUs in regions across the state, the death rate is likely to continue rising.

“Georgia is very much the poster child for what happens when leadership take a hands-off approach to managing a pandemic,” Heiman said. “There are clear policies and practices that we know work to control this pandemic. Candidly, we’re not doing any of those things in our state.” Georgia is faring better than some other states, but it isn’t trending in the right direction. Georgia has the fifth-most COVID-19 cases (seventh-most per capita) and the fourth-most hospitalizations, behind New York, Florida and New Jersey, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state is the middle of the pack when it comes to coronavirus testing per capita and has conducted nearly 1.9 million tests. About 10% of those tests are coming back positive, meaning that Georgia is among the 36 states that don’t meet the World Health Organization’s recommended 5% average positivity rate to reopen businesses.

Ben Lopman, a professor of epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, said the state’s approach has been “cavalier.”

“We’ve had mixed messages about masks, with the governor trying to stop local leaders like Atlanta’s mayor from putting in a mandate,” Lopman said. “The effort to control transmission in the community has been weak, so it’s not safe to open schools. Students, along with teachers and parents, have been put in a terrible position because of the state’s inaction.”

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