State public health officials highlighted promising downward trends in the COVID-19 pandemic following Labor Day weekend in Georgia as researchers race to evaluate potential vaccines.
Since early last week, Georgia’s overall virus transmission rate has fallen by more than double digits through Tuesday, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
The seven-day average positivity rate – a key marker for assessing the virus’ spread – has dropped from 10.1% to 8.9% over the past roughly two weeks, according to the state agency. The seven-day average of new cases reported is down 48% from the peak on July 24.
Hospitalizations from coronavirus have also decreased since the start of September by 13.4%, though health experts have warned data on mortality and intensive-care visits typically lag by days or even weeks after outbreaks.
State officials and health experts pressed Georgians not to throw caution to the wind over the Labor Day holiday weekend, particularly in light of evidence that past holiday get-togethers in May and July likely sparked COVID-19 flare ups.
“We’ve come too far in our fight with COVID-19 to turn back now,” Gov. Brian Kemp said this week. “I’m asking Georgians to wear a mask, wash their hands, practice social distancing and follow public health guidance to stop the spread.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, since the outbreak began, more than 285,000 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 6,070 Georgians and hospitalized 25,845.
In Bartow County, there have been 247 cases the last two weeks, according to the state Department of Public Health, as of Wednesday afternoon. There have been a total of 2,599 cases since the outbreak began in Bartow, 251 hospitalizations and 75 deaths.
Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a leading Emory University epidemiologist who has focused on the virus since its onset in March, noted Georgia’s virus positivity rate has mimicked a decline across the country over the past few days.
He urged Georgians to continue wearing masks, washing hands and keeping distance from each other.
“We need to not drop our guard because we are in a good trajectory and we need to keep moving forward,” Del Rio said in a news conference Wednesday morning.
Clinical trials entered a new phase last month for a potential vaccine to prevent COVID-19, marking one of a few trials from researchers and lab companies pushing to have a vaccine ready for release in the coming months.
Atlanta-based Emory is one of several institutions participating in clinical trials for a vaccine candidate manufactured by the company Moderna. Researchers in mid-August began recruiting more subjects for expanded testing of the potential vaccine.
Del Rio said Wednesday that while trials are going well, researchers still need more participants from local Black and Latino communities who represent populations that have been hardest hit by the virus and health-care disparities.
“You want to be sure that the most affected populations are represented,” Del Rio said.
Vaccine trials have shown promising results so far at Emory and across the country for a so-called mRNA vaccine using genetic sequencing to create proteins that mimic coronavirus, triggering a response from a patient’s immune system to erect safeguards.
One aspect of the outbreak that has not decreased is the spread on college campuses, where students’ return to schools across the state caused an increase in cases.
The University of Georgia reported more than 1,400 new cases of COVID-19 in the past week.
The numbers, reported Wednesday, push the 39,000-student university close to 2,600 total infections in the past four weeks, according to the school’s data. Although Georgia College & State University still has recorded a larger share of infections among its campus community since Aug. 1, UGA’s outbreak is now the fastest growing among universities in the state that are publicly reporting numbers.
The surge is clearly reflected in the figures for the broader Athens-Clarke County community. Clarke County is 23rd among U.S. counties for the most new cases per capita in the past 14 days, according to figures kept by The Associated Press, although the university says some tests may come from students and employees elsewhere.
And a rising positivity rate suggests things could be getting worse, with 8% of surveillance tests conducted to keep an eye on the spread of the virus coming back positive last week, compared to 5% the week before.
UGA announced Tuesday that it was increasing the number of daily surveillance tests available from 360 to 450, and inviting randomized groups of students to come take a test, starting with campus housing residents.
Georgia College & State University, with 645 positive tests since Aug. 1, still has the highest share of campus infections, but new cases have slowed there. Cases are still rising fast at Georgia Southern University, which has reported 942 infections in recent weeks. Georgia Tech, which has reported 717 cases since the beginning of August, is urging students who share dorm rooms to move into singles.
Dr. Garth Russo, executive director of UGA’s University Health Center, suggested in a news release that because only one faculty member tested positive last week, it suggests that the virus is being spread somewhere else besides classrooms.
Not all faculty members feel reassured, though. More than 350 faculty members statewide have signed a recent petition by the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors calling for the system or individual institutions to move to fully online instruction. The Board of Regents has a mandate that each university must have at least some in-person classes, with dorms and dining facilities opening at all the schools.
President Jere Morehead pronounced the trend “disturbing” after calling it “concerning” last week. He again told students it was their responsibility to follow health rules.
“Each of us must make sound decisions in the coming days and weeks so that we can turn the trajectory, as we have seen at other institutions in the state,” Morehead said in a statement.
But the student newspaper, The Red & Black, editorialized last week that “the blame should not rest entirely on students.”
“The University System of Georgia decided to have in-person classes this fall despite the blatant risk it poses to the residents of Athens-Clarke County,” the newspaper wrote. “Even bound by the guidelines placed on them by the USG Board of Regents, the administrators at UGA did not create a strong enough plan to keep students and Athens residents safe.”
— The Associated Press and Capitol Beat News contributed to this report.