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Georgia Massaged Virus Data to Reopen, Then Voided Mask Orders
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Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s edict expressly voiding coronavirus mask orders by local governments capped a week of turmoil in a state once touted as proof that reopening in a pandemic could work.
For six weeks, Georgia had been a model, especially for those eager to end shutdowns. Among the last U.S. states to lock down, Georgia in April was first to widely reopen, after just three weeks. Critics said the state misrepresented its data to justify the move, and they predicted disaster.
It didn’t happen: Covid-19 case numbers bumped along, neither rising nor falling significantly. Pandemic skeptics crowed.
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That ended last month.
Although still lagging behind Florida, Texas and Arizona, Georgia’s Covid-19 cases are surging. As of Thursday, the state’s seven-day rolling average of newly reported cases was 3,507 -- quadruple its April pre-shutdown peak. Last week, Georgia joined states whose citizens have to quarantine if they visit the Northeast or Chicago. It also reopened a makeshift hospital overflow ward in an Atlanta convention center as local governments tried to contain the surge themselves.
On Thursday, though, Kemp’s administration followed his mask-voiding order with a lawsuit seeking to block Atlanta’s requirement.
It was another example of him hindering local efforts, making him an outlier among Southern governors who have rolled back reopenings in the face of surging infection rates. The contrast speaks to a larger challenge for Republicans trying to fight the pandemic in the age of President Donald Trump.
“You’ve got this tragedy going on now in these red states that’s a direct result of bad public health, safety, bad public policy decisions in an effort to please Donald J. Trump,” Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director turned critic, said in an interview.
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Kemp’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. But local leaders in Georgia said their hands have been tied by his statewide orders since late April.
“Helpless and demoralized,” is how Clarke County Commissioner Russell Edwards described sentiments. Many local officials believed case counts were swelling even as Kemp used the state’s official -- and optimistic -- statistics as reasons to keep the economy going.
But the same week Kemp ordered the reopening, his administration began presenting data in a way that made the state appear healthier than it was, said Thomas Tsai, a professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The technique involved backdating new cases to the time of first symptoms or taking a test, instead of reporting them as they were reported to the state, like Georgia had previously done -- and like most states do.
“It is deeply concerning,” Tsai said. “I cannot of course speak to the motivation.”
The effect -- as states were being told to predicate their reopenings on two weeks of declining case numbers -- was to artificially make Georgia’s trends look better. The state began adding new cases to past dates on its trend line, making current numbers both too low and incomplete, Tsai said.
“What’s deceptive is that they shave off the most recent two weeks,” he said. “If you look at the most recent two weeks, it’s always very low. It always looks artificially like a downward trend.”
The backdating has value for epidemiologists, said Nancy Nydam, a state Public Health Department spokeswoman. “The traditional way to look at data during an outbreak is by symptom onset date, which tells you more about when people are infected,” she said in an email.
But Tsai said that the massaged trend chart appeared to dictate policy, and that Georgia shouldn’t have shifted counting methods midstream. He called the timing “fishy.”
The methodology “may be accurate from the epidemiologists’ point of view, but it’s another thing entirely to do this halfway through a pandemic,” Tsai said. “It is always going to look like it’s declining. You are constantly moving the goal posts.”
Even now, according to a daily comparison by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the difference is striking. A chart based on new reported cases had numbers soaring through July 16. The state’s symptom-onset version showed them plummeting after July 2.
The newspaper’s chart counted 3,441 new cases Thursday. The “preliminary” number on the state chart: 20.
The health department’s Nydam said the state will change its methodology again soon, because symptom-onset dates have become less relevant as more asymptomatic people get tests.
The state’s counting methods may have obscured the pandemic’s spread, but other factors may have had actual mitigating effects.
One was fear: Georgians didn’t rush out when allowed, according to mobility data collected by Google. Movement didn’t accelerate in earnest until June and remains below prepandemic levels for all location categories except parks and home.
Another was sobriety. Georgia didn’t open bars until June 1, making a locus of transmission off limits. And restrictions Kemp imposed on reopening other businesses -- like masks for hair salons -- initially kept new infections down.
Many Republicans have argued that late May police-brutality protests were a culprit in the surge, although Tsai is skeptical: “None of us can prove if it was the protests or not. But given what we know about transmission, the clusters are coming from indoor events in settings with poor air circulation for a long duration. Outdoor protests don’t check off those boxes.”
What is certain is that cases began rising in late June and surged in July, developments even massaged data couldn’t hide.
This month, the state education department and the University System of Georgia both reversed careful reopening plans. The latter also forbade universities from requiring masks in class, sparking fury in Athens, home to the University of Georgia, said Clarke County’s Edwards.
“Some of the large-scale student bars have reopened, which science tells us is the most high-risk activity out there,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of apprehension in the community based on a current trajectory.”
On July 1, Savannah became the first Georgia city to rebel, mandating masks for citizens.
Kemp initially didn’t react. “We saw that and said, ‘To hell with this,’” said Edwards. By Wednesday, Clarke County and at least 14 other localities had mask mandates.
That night, Kemp suspended any “law, order, ordinance, rule, or regulation that requires persons to wear face coverings, masks, face shields, or any other Personal Protective Equipment while in places of public accommodation or on public property.”
On Thursday, the 3,441 new cases reported brought the total to 131,275. More than 3,100 people in Georgia have died of the disease.