Public health experts are urging caution as pandemic-weary Georgians head into a holiday weekend to wrap up the summer.
Georgia has seen a recent decline in new infections, but it was only a few weeks ago when the state had the highest number of new cases in the country.
The state is also still in the red zone for new cases and now has the seventh highest rate of new infections, according to the latest White House Coronavirus Task Force report obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
That progress remains fragile, and Dr. Henry Wu, director of the Emory TravelWell Center, describes the COVID-19 pandemic as a “wildfire.”
“If the conditions are right, it can flare up even when you thought you had it under control,” said Wu, who is an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine.
“So any situation where we have a large number of people traveling, getting into congregate settings – and that would certainly include a popular travel weekend like Labor Day – that could lead to the factors that would result in a spike. So yes, we are concerned that this could happen,” he said.
It’s happened before. A new report released this week traced Georgia’s summer surge back to Memorial Day travel and gatherings and pointed to that holiday weekend as an important contributor to the spike in cases that started about two weeks later.
On Memorial Day, the seven-day average case count was 605.9; at the peak on July 11, the average was 4,342 – which was a 616% increase, according to the report from Dr. Amber Schmidtke, who is a former Mercer University School of Medicine professor and a medical microbiology and immunology expert who has been posting regular analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And cases spiked most dramatically along Georgia’s borders in areas noted for their role in the state’s tourism and hospitality industries, the report noted.
Schmidtke also looked at whether the protests for social justice following the May 25 murder of George Floyd contributed to the sharp increases in cases. She said the counties with the largest protests – Fulton and DeKalb counties – only saw modest increases compared to the state’s travel hotspots.
“I think they have the advantage of sunlight on their side, which we know the UV light is harmful to the genetic material of the virus,” Schmidtke said of the demonstrators. “They had good airflow. There were other factors that made that not as big of a problem as say somebody who goes to a vacation setting and then goes to a local bar or restaurant.”
The key difference, she said, is vacationers often end up in those riskier indoor settings – like a bar – where there is no benefit of good ventilation or the virus-averse ultraviolet light. Also, someone who is dining or imbibing indoors has likely slipped off their face mask.
“That’s why I think there is that dichotomy of why one resulted in problems but the other might not have,” Schmidtke said.
The July 4th weekend did not, however, lead to a significant bump cases. Schmidtke attributes the difference to the widespread news coverage of the post-Memorial Day spike – and the resulting strain on hospitals – that may have convinced people to skip their usual Independence Day festivities this year.
But Schmidtke said she worries the lessons from Memorial Day could be a distant memory. Her advice is to keep gatherings as small and contained as possible.
If there is an increase, it would likely take weeks for the state’s numbers to reflect it.
“We all want to have a great sign off to the summer, but I don’t think that any of us want to risk seeing somebody we love but then also putting them in the hospital because we weren’t careful,” she said. “It’s just important to remember what the stakes are.”