- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp reopened his state for business last month, he was derided as a coronavirus-denier and a veritable murderer.

Amid broad concern among public health officials that it was too soon and risked a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the Atlantic branded the move “Georgia’s experiment in human sacrifice.”

So far at least, that hasn’t happened.

While no one can pinpoint why and some think the verdict still under deliberation, the confident predictions that Mr. Kemp, a Republican, had unleashed a calamity on the Peach State appear to be wrong.

The novel coronavirus that originated last year in Wuhan, China, is blamed for a total of more than 1,500 deaths and more than 6,250 hospitalizations in Georgia since the outbreak began.

But since May 1, the daily count of confirmed cases and deaths have dropped markedly.

As of Wednesday, the seven-day moving average of new cases was 242, down from 773 on April 29. The seven-day moving average of deaths was 12, down sharply from 34 on April 29, according to the state health department.

Hospitalizations in the state stood at 1,125 on Wednesday, a decline from the 1,500 figure on May 1, according to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Some public health experts caution that it is too soon to gauge the outcome of relaxed stay-at-home orders.

“It’s too early to tell much,” said Andreas Handel, a biologist at the University of Georgia. “The lags involved from new infection to symptoms to testing to having a case notification are so long that I think we need another one or two weeks of data before we can get a good picture of the potential impact.”

Other states watch Georgia with considerable interest as they, too, begin to lift restrictions imposed to “flatten the curve” of rising COVID-19 infections and deaths, hoping to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

Governors face mounting pressure to reopen as the economic shutdown takes a grim toll with businesses large and small forced into bankruptcy or closing permanently and more than 33 million Americans out of work.

Economists warn that the longer the shutdown remains in place, the more severe and lasting the economic damage will be.

So far, 48 states have relaxed stay-at-home orders or announced some businesses will soon reopen.

Hard-hit states such as Louisiana are moved to reopen businesses this week. New Jersey, which has had one the most severe outbreaks, will begin easing some restrictions Monday.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that he will allow some construction and retail businesses to reopen in a limited fashion.

Nonessential retail stores will be allowed to reopen for curbside pickup Monday morning and “drive-up” or “drive-in” events such as church services resumed effective immediately Wednesday.

“The data has allowed us to determine that the date to start our recovery, however cautiously — at least the next steps — is today,” said Mr. Murphy, a Democrat.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that he will implement phase one of a reopening plan for most of the state on Friday, followed two weeks later by phase-one reopening in heavily populated Northern Virginia.

Under phase one, retailers, places of worship and personal care businesses will be able to reopen with restrictions on the number of customers and requirements on cleaning and personal protective equipment.

The ban on mass gatherings of 10 people or more will still be in place in phase one, and the Democratic governor encouraged Virginians to stay home, telework, wear face masks and practice social distancing.

States such as Florida that have had less severe outbreaks have more broadly lifted restrictions.

At least 10 states are reopening before hitting the White House benchmark of a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Proponents of reopening, however, note that a two-week streak of declining numbers is unlikely as states substantially increasing testing, which produces more positive results.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leader of the White House coronavirus task force, warned this week of “suffering and death” if states rush to reopen.

Just how to judge whether a reopening has been a success or failure is also a slippery concept.

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott lifted many restrictions on May 1, there has been a surge in the number of positive tests. But the number of hospitalizations has been on the decline, falling to 19 on Tuesday, which was the lowest tally since Texas Medical Center began tracking the data in March.

The first shutdown order in Georgia was in the college town of Athens on March 19. Mr. Kemp signed his statewide measure on April 2, making Georgia’s shutdown considerably shorter than in harder-hit states such as New York, Michigan and Louisiana.

Under Mr. Kemp’s reopening order, the lockdown remains for the elderly and other vulnerable groups until June 12.

The promising data in Georgia has not improved the governor’s poll numbers. Just 39% of voters in the state approved of Mr. Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, according to a Washington Post poll released this week.

The same poll showed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat running the state at the epicenter of the outbreak that has seen as many fatalities as the next five states combined, had an 81% approval rate.

University of Georgia biostatistician Mark Ebell said the progress made in George paled in comparison to Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has kept strict social distancing rules in place and provoked fierce protests from residents.

“Look at Georgia, which has plateaued and is not decreasing,” Dr. Ebell said. “Hardly a ‘success’ for Georgia.”

Michigan, with some 700,000 fewer people than Georgia, has suffered a much worse outbreak of COVID-19. Despite its smaller population, Michigan has seen more than three times as many deaths for a total of more than 4,670.

Michigan’s 7-day running average of deaths dropped from a high of 150 on April 19 to about 60 this week and Georgia from a high of 40 on the same date to just under 30.

“From the peak, Michigan’s has declined more than 50%,” Dr. Ebell said. “There is a lot of noise in the Georgia curve, but the general trend has been bouncing around from 30 to 40. I’m glad I’m up in Michigan now.”

Last week, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, whose forecasting models helped craft White House coronavirus policy, raised its projected cumulative totals for Georgia to almost 5,000 by August, an increase of more than 200%.

“Many predictions, including my group’s predictions from April 28th, suggested that Georgia was on track for a sustained period of cases/deaths, as long as individuals continued to socially distance at or near levels similar to those prior to the relaxation of shelter-in-place rules,” said Joshua Weitz, a bioscience scholar at Georgia Institute of Technology.

President Trump at first was critical of Mr. Kemp’s decision to reopen.
Still, the idea that Georgia or any other state has returned to normal is a myth. Businesses are not required to reopen and those that do are required to abide by social distancing guidelines, keep employees masked when dealing with the public and take other safety measures.

“We continue to caution that the vast majority of Georgia residents remain susceptible to infection so Georgia remains at risk for a significant increase in cases if people resume ‘business as usual’ behavior,” Mr. Weitz said. “Georgia has a very long way to go in efforts to reduce new case counts to 0, and I would caution against any effort to declare success prematurely.”

Sophie Kaplan and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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