A month since Georgia took some of the earliest and most extensive steps to reopen parts of its economy, Covid-19 cases have largely flattened in the state, albeit with a slight recent uptick.
“The bad news is we are not seeing a reduction in transmission, but I don’t see a spike in transmission,” said Dr. Gerardo Chowell, professor of mathematical epidemiology at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.
Data from the Georgia Department of Health shows that the seven-day moving average of coronavirus cases steadily declined from late April until mid-May, a reflection of the earlier stay-at-home order. The moving average of cases then flattened at just over 500 new cases per day, and the totals have risen slightly since May 12.
Last month, after weeks of stay-at-home orders, Georgia allowed businesses like gyms, hair and nail salons and restaurants to reopen with certain restrictions in an attempt to restart its economy. Georgia was the first state to move so aggressively to reopen its economy and as such has come to represent the broader reopening movement.
Some health experts worried that the reopening, combined with the state’s limited testing capability, could lead to an increase in cases that could overwhelm hospitals, such as happened in Albany, Georgia, in the early days of the pandemic.
So far, that fear has not been borne out. The preliminary data suggests that reopening has not led to a spike in cases – but the virus has continued to steadily infect people and shows no signs of waning.
“I’m proud of what we accomplished over the last several weeks, but we cannot rest on our laurels,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said last week. “We need to further expand access to testing and we need to encourage Georgians to make it a priority.”
Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a professor of epidemiology at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, said he thought Georgia was doing OK but worried about the beginning of an uptick in cases. Because the virus can spread so rapidly, a small increase can quickly spiral into a major spike without proper precautions.
“Having a healthy economy is about providing people jobs, it’s about providing people opportunity, it’s about health,” he said. “So unemployment causes disease, unemployment causes poverty, so we have to find a balance, but we need to do it carefully. We need to be careful not to be irresponsible.”
Georgia has had over 43,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, or just over 400 per 100,000 residents, and over 1,800 coronavirus deaths, or 17 per 100,000 residents, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The per-capita numbers are in the upper-middle of the pack among US states, on par with Mississippi and Virginia but slightly higher than nearby Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina.
Data issues cloud trends
Dr. Chowell told CNN the recent increase in cases was likely due more to expanded testing in the state rather than the reopening. He said he expected the current transmission rate to remain steady through the summer.
However, both Del Rio and Chowell said Georgia’s issues with its testing data made their analysis somewhat uncertain.
Georgia was one of several states that combined numbers from diagnostic and antibody tests on their website. Because those two tests measure different things – diagnostic tests check for current infection, and antibody tests check for past infection – combining them could draw a misleading picture of where the virus is spreading and how many people currently have the virus.