Health experts challenge claim rural Georgia less threatened by COVID-19

Georgians aren't able to easily access drive-through testing sites like this one in Arlington, Va., which means the scope of the outbreak in this state's rural areas is unknown. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Gov. Brian Kemp argues against ordering a statewide shutdown to stem the spread of COVID-19, citing some Georgia communities where no tests have come back positive.

“In Jeff Davis County, I know of two days ago, they didn’t even have a single case down there, and you have people saying, ‘look, we need to be working, I’m worried about losing my home, I’m worried about getting meals for my kids,’” Kemp said at a televised town hall last week.

But given the lack of testing, it’s not at all a sure thing Jeff Davis County residents are safe to go to work, said Georgia State University public health professor Harry Heiman.

“That’s the wrong conclusion, and candidly, the rationale that’s being provided by the governor and by the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey, is not based in the best public health science.

“There are parts of the state where we’ve had no positive test results, but we’ve also done virtually no testing,” he added. “Anyone who gets a false sense of safety or a false sense of assurance by the fact that there haven’t been as many positive tests as they think there might have been are being deceived by the fact that we’re not doing enough testing to know.”

As last week ended, state and private labs processed tests for nearly 10,000 Georgians. That represents less than .01% of Georgia’s population.

Last week, Kemp said 23 sites had been set up in cities across the state to collect specimens for testing. People can get tested at these sites by appointment only, and appointments are limited to those  with physician referrals. People who are at the greatest risk get top priority, including older people, someone with existing medical conditions, first responders and senior care facility workers and residents.

State health department districts that oversee those sites report testing capacity can vary widely from site to site.

Fulton County is the most populous county in Georgia and unsurprisingly is home to the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Last week, between 20 and 30 people were tested in the Atlanta location each day, with the number increasing over the week, according to a spokeswoman, who also said new kits typically arrive from the state every day, but the number varies.

Sites in Dalton and Woodstock are able to test about 70 people per day and also receive new kits on a daily basis.

A spokeswoman for the health district that includes Jeff Davis County in south Georgia declined to say how many people had been tested there.

Jeff Davis Hospital also declined to provide comment for this story. A tracker on the hospital’s website shows as of Sunday afternoon, 34 patients were tested for coronavirus. Of those tests, 10 came back negative and 24 are awaiting results.

Dr. Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, associate professor of epidemiology at the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, said people in Georgia’s rural areas could be infected and not know it yet.

“There’s always a time lapse where somebody is infected, let’s say 10 days ago, it may take them up to, potentially, 14 days until they have symptoms,” he said. “But there is growing evidence that some people who are asymptomatic or they are pre-symptomatic, i.e., before they develop symptoms, they are already transmitting the virus to someone else.”

Fung, who also lives and works in rural southeast Georgia, said people in less-populated parts of the state face different challenges than big city dwellers. People there tend to be older, poorer and more likely to face chronic health problems. They’re also farther away from health care.

“If we have an outbreak, our risk is actually higher than Atlanta,” he said. “The risk of us not having adequate health care and, therefore, the old people dying, is higher than Atlanta. We have a lower risk of getting infected because we don’t have as many cases in our neighborhood, but unfortunately, having an outbreak … our rural hospital very soon would be overwhelmed, and people who do not have intensive care units or do not have ventilators to keep them breathing, they will die. And Atlanta is too far away for us. Even Savannah is an hour away.”

Heiman said in a perfect world, everyone who wanted a test would be able to get it, but since that is not possible, Georgia should close all nonessential businesses and tell people to shelter at home.

“Do you want to take a chance on the side of maybe it’s not as bad as we think it is, and in which case, maybe we won’t inconvenience people by making them shelter at home, but if we’re wrong, it’s going to get really bad, really fast, we’re going to overwhelm our healthcare system and we’re not going to be able to take care of all the sick people. And we’re not only going to experience a significantly increased number of deaths because we can’t take care of them, but it’s also putting our healthcare workers at a significantly increased risk.”

Testing snapshot

Georgia is not the only state to face test shortages. According to the Covid Tracking Project, an independent effort managed by volunteers, nearly 27,000 Floridians have been tested, or about .01% of that state’s population. In South Carolina, nearly 15,000 tests have been turned in, or about .02% of the population.

New York state has 45,000 COVID-19 patients, more than any other state, and also has the highest number of people tested in the country. About .6% of New Yorkers have been tested.

The nationwide shortages stem from several factors, Heiman said, including that the first batch of tests sent out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in February were flawed and unusable. Heiman said the feds should have reached out to private labs across the country months ago and provided them with resources to rapidly increase their testing capacity.

“Now we’re playing this massive game of catch up, where no one has the testing materials, or the manpower to actually run the test in a way that can give us the kind of rapid turnaround that we need,” Heiman said.

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.