Georgia defies predictions of coronavirus resurgence, new cases fall

Last month, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was highly critical of Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to reopen businesses, calling it  “dangerously incompetent and deeply callous.”

“We’re telling the most vulnerable people in our society, ‘You can either work or you can lose your life,'” said Abrams “We are putting them at risk, and we’re putting their families at risk.”

However, a new report from Yahoo indicates the reopening of Georgia has defied expectations and a rolling seven-day average of new daily cases has fallen.

Per Yahoo:

For the seven-day period ending on May 4, Georgia’s daily average stood at 746 cases.

By May 11, the average had fallen 12.6 percent to 652 daily cases.

By May 18, it had dropped to 612 cases, a further decline of 6.1 percent.

At the same time, Georgia’s seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations fell from 1,432 on May 4, to 1,239 on May 11, to 1,049 on May 18 — a three-week decline of 26.7 percent.

In addition, Politifact writes:

In the 12 days before April 24, when Kemp began easing restrictions, Georgia had a total of 9,695 confirmed coronavirus cases.

In the 12 days after (which coincides with Abrams’ interview), Georgia reported about 1,100 fewer confirmed cases, 8,549.

Overall, comparing the two time periods, cases in Georgia decreased 12% after the reopening. They didn’t increase 40%.

Yahoo reports on April 24, as more than 25,000 Americans continued to test positive for COVID-19 each day, Georgia became the first U.S. state to initiate the fraught process known as “reopening.”

First it allowed hair salons, gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys to resume operations. Dine-in restaurants and movie theaters followed a few days later.

Today much of the state is open for business, under guidelines including a 6-foot social distancing rule.

The move was controversial, to say the least. In the New York Times, Keren Landman, an Atlanta-based physician, epidemiologist and journalist, accused Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of potentially “setting us up for a punishing new wave of infections” by volunteering Georgia as “the nation’s canary in this particularly terrifying coal mine.”

Even President Trump said he “disagree[d] strongly with [Kemp’s] decision.”

But now 26 days have passed since the state started to reopen — and that punishing new wave of infections has not materialized. In fact, according to a database maintained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia’s rolling seven-day average of new daily cases — an important metric that helps to balance out daily fluctuations in reporting — has fallen for three weeks in a row.

Those figures are undisputed — despite a clumsy effort by state officials to present the data in a way that made them look even better. And they are a lot better than the experience in two other states that are moving to end lockdowns, Florida and Texas.

For the seven-day period ending on May 4, Georgia’s daily average stood at 746 cases.

By May 11, the average had fallen 12.6 percent to 652 daily cases.

By May 18, it had dropped to 612 cases, a further decline of 6.1 percent.

At the same time, Georgia’s seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations fell from 1,432 on May 4, to 1,239 on May 11, to 1,049 on May 18 — a three-week decline of 26.7 percent.

The numbers reflect a slowing in transmission. According to the AJC database, Rt — an epidemiological statistic that represents transmissibility, or the number of people a sick person infects at a particular point in an epidemic — fell from 1.0 on May 4, to 0.94 on May 11, to 0.88 on May 16. An Rt below 1 indicates that each person infects, on average, less than one other person.

So does Georgia’s experience mean the canary has survived the coal mine? And if so, what would the state’s survival mean for the rest of America?

To one degree or another, all 50 states have now started to reopen. But the process has advanced slowly, in fits and starts — especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where Democratic governors have tended to be more cautious than their Republican counterparts in the South, the Midwest and the Mountain West.

UPDATE:

From LATimes:

Nearly a month after Georgia became the first state to allow businesses to reopen after the coronavirus shutdown, Gov. Brian Kemp took to a conservative radio show to tout some good news.

Hospitalizations were down more than 30% in less than three weeks, and Georgia had ramped up its testing, with a per capita rate that placed it 20th out of 54 U.S. states and territories, up from 46th a month ago, he explained.

“We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas,” the Republican said this week on pundit Erick Erickson’s WSB drive-time show. “What we’re doing is working.”

The next day, one of Kemp’s key facts was thrown into question.

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported that unlike many other states, Georgia calculates its total number of tests by combining viral diagnostic checks, which indicate current infection, and antibody tests, which indicate past infection.

Worse, the state uses this combined total as the denominator when it calculates the percentage of positive diagnostic tests, making that figure look smaller than it is.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Harry J. Heiman, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. “The one thing that we’re relying on is transparent and accurate data. So, when that gets undermined, and in the case of Georgia repeatedly undermined, it makes it very challenging to understand what’s going on.”

When Georgia began to allow hair and nail salons, gyms and tattoo parlors to open their doors, some critics predicted that cases, hospitalizations and deaths would spike.

That has not happened, but public health experts said it is still too early to measure the impact of reopening.

And so the debate has devolved into a partisan war over math. Those who want to kick-start the economy tend to be Republicans and focus on the drop in hospitalizations and rise in testing, while those who are more cautious are often Democrats and accuse the state of manipulating the numbers.

The doubters have found plenty of ammunition on Department of Public Health website.

Georgia has drawn nationwide ridicule in recent days since it was discovered that a graph on the site presented days out of chronological order — after April 30, it hopped to May 6 and then back to May 4 — creating the mistaken impression that new infections in five hard-hit counties were swiftly declining. Actually, they had plateaued.

Kemp’s office said it was an innocent error, but critics viewed it as part of a pattern of massaging data for political purposes.

Last month, around the time that Kemp began to lift business restrictions across the state, the Department of Public Health changed the way it recorded new cases, listing the date a patient first reported symptoms instead of the date a test came back positive.

The change altered the timeline, shifting cases further into the past.

Critics said the latest controversy — over combining diagnostic and antibody tests — was even more damaging.

The presentation of the data led many Georgians to mistakenly think the state was making faster progress on increasing diagnostic testing and reducing the rate of positive tests.

Since early April, when the website began lumping together both kinds of tests, antibody tests have accounted for about 13% of the total, based on information provided by the health department.

Not counting them drops Georgia’s national per capita ranking from 20th to 29th, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

“Right now, a lot of people are saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’” said T.J. Muehleman, founder of the COVID Mapping Project, an online tool that analyzes COVID-19 data sources. “How do we trust the data?”

At a news conference Thursday, Kemp urged Georgians to be patient and have confidence in the data. He said staff members were working at “breakneck speed” to compile massive amounts of information and that some of the mishaps were probably due to mounting pressure to swiftly update the state’s website.

“Look, we’re not perfect,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes and, when we do that, we’ll own that, change it and make sure people are aware of that.”

The feud over numbers takes place amid a broader political and cultural divide on risk.

While public health experts worry that relaxing restrictions could cause the virus to rebound, lockdown critics accuse them of focusing on worst-case scenarios. Watching the economic devastation wrought by the virus, they bristle at national media stories that castigate Georgia for leading the race to become “America’s No. 1 Death Destination” and offering its citizens as an “experiment in human sacrifice.”

One Wall Street Journal piece, retweeted by Kemp, hailed “the Georgia model.” The state’s “encouraging escape from lockdown,” it argued, could counter the “horrendous costs of overreaction” and “inspire people to resume necessary activities.”

Yet in a poll conducted in late April and early May, Kemp’s COVID-response ranked the least popular in the nation, with only 39% of Georgia residents saying they approved.

When Georgia began to reopen on April 24, more than 22,000 people in the state had tested positive for the virus and about 890 people had died. Four weeks later, more than 41,000 Georgians have tested positive and more than 1,800 have died.

Tracking the spread of the virus is difficult because there are significant lags between infection, testing, diagnosis, hospitalization and death.

There are also delays as public health officials gather and present information. Data from the last 14 days are typically incomplete, Muehleman said.

For the first few weeks after reopening, experts would expect hospitalizations and deaths to plateau or decline, reflecting the results of sheltering in place. Even after that, widespread hesitation to immediately venture out could prevent a major rise in infections.

In Georgia, many business owners across Atlanta and in towns hit hard by the coronavirus kept their doors shuttered after Kemp lifted restrictions and many consumers continued to hunker down.

Four weeks on, reopening does not seem to have led to a significant rebound of the economy. The state’s unemployment rate climbed this week to nearly 12% — higher than during the Great Recession.

Still, President Trump has not hesitated to single out Georgia for praise.

“The states are opening up. Numbers are going down as they open,” he said Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol. “Look at Georgia.”