State officials cite progress against COVID, warn of seasonal flu risk

    Dr. Kathleen Toomey, head of Georgia’s Department of Public Health, joined Gov. Brian Kemp at a Thursday news conference to urge Georgians to get a seasonal flu shot this fall. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

    Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia’s top public health official warned that while the state’s latest COVID-19 data shows promising progress since summer peaks, the state isn’t out of the woods yet with the arrival of flu season.

    Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said Thursday at a Capitol coronavirus update that a large enough flu outbreak in the coming months could put more lives at risk and reverse decreases in the spread of COVID-19.

    Since the pandemic peaked in Georgia in July, newly reported coronavirus cases are down 64%, and hospitalizations have dipped by a similar percentage.

    Still, medical experts know little about how the regular seasonal flu will affect COVID patients and worry the combination could strain hospitals and other parts of the health care system. That’s why it’s critical for people to not only get flu shots this fall but also continue following public health guidelines to wash hands frequently, wear face coverings and practice social distancing, Toomey said.

    “We realized that people sometimes don’t think a flu shot is effective, are afraid to get it, or just don’t bother,” she said. “This is particularly important this year. We’re trying to prevent twindemics of COVID plus influenza, which could be devastating.”

    According to the state public health COVID-19 website, since the pandemic publicly arrived in Georgia in mid-March, more than 324,000 people have been confirmed with cases and 7,229 people have died.

    Georgia’s percentage of positive tests over the last 14 days remained flat at about 6%. In early August, the comparable rate was 12%.

    Nationally, the positive test rate dropped from 8% in early August to slightly under 5% this month, according to John Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Research Center.

    Kemp said now is not the time to take the foot off the gas despite the positive trends since July and as more students return to classrooms and college campuses and businesses remain open.

    “We said it on fly arounds (promoting face masks), we said it standing outside the hospital, here at the Capitol, at the airport and in communities all across our state: ‘We need Georgians to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,'” Kemp said. “I’m very proud of the fact that Georgians have stepped up to the plate and done the right thing.”

    Kemp has faced criticism from some medical experts and others that he’s put more lives at risk by not issuing a statewide mask requirement and by too quickly lifting state-ordered business restrictions during the pandemic. The Republican scolded the media Thursday as in the past for pointing out some recent trends that show weekly cases are higher than the low point in May.

    A White House Coronavirus Task Force’s report from Sunday, obtained by various media outlets, shows Georgia ranks 28th highest in the nation for new cases per 100,000 residents.

    And while Georgia’s seen a slight decrease in new cases, the report recommends more statewide testing and enforcing mitigation measures around colleges to prevent the state from falling behind.

    Instead of “cherry-picking” stats, figures from the public health department over 10 weeks reveal a better picture of how well the state is faring, Kemp said

    He also used the press conference to say the state’s unemployment rate is lower than much of the country and that the state continues to create new jobs. During his coronavirus updates that began in the spring he often says he is trying to find a balance between saving the lives of Georgians with saving livelihoods.

    “It’s interesting that some people will focus only on the negative and none of the positive, whether it’s COVID news or economic news,” Kemp said. “I can promise you I’m going to continue to tell the full story and if we start getting concerned about hospitalization numbers or rising cases, we’ll figure out.”

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.