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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Whitfield County Health Department is seen on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in Dalton, Ga.

Whitfield County in Northwest Georgia has seen a surge in the number of positive coronavirus cases in the last week and a half. Public health experts say the rise is a result of increased testing and community spread, both at workplaces and in communities where social distancing is not always feasible.

Georgia was one of the first states in the country to reopen certain businesses and was known to have the most aggressive plan to do so.

On April 24, hair salons, spas, gyms, barbershops, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys were among the businesses that reopened to the public. Three days later, movie theaters and restaurants were able to open with capacity restrictions.

Local government started to slowly open around that same time.

During the first full week of May, Georgia started offering free COVID-19 tests for people without symptoms for the first time in a statewide effort to increase testing.

From May 4 to May 18, Whitfield County saw an increase of 59 positive coronavirus cases, up from 123 to 182. That's about 4 new cases a day.

From May 18 to May 27, cases surged from 182 to 308, or an average of 14 new cases a day.

In an even shorter window, cases rose from 193 to 270 in four days, from May 19 to May 23. That's an average of 19 new cases a day.

Of 308 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Whitfield County, 197 are attributed to Hispanic residents, or more than 64% of all cases. Hispanic or Latino residents make up about 34% of the population in the county.

According to an ongoing analysis page from The New York Times early on Wednesday, Dalton's rate of growth in new cases per day is the seventh highest in the nation, doubling about every 12 days. That's up from No. 8 the day before.

The report also identified Chattanooga's growth rate of new cases per day as fourth highest in the nation, doubling about every 10 days. That's up from No. 5 on Tuesday.

Between April 20 and May 7, Georgia more than doubled the number of coronavirus tests it conducted, from 84,328 to more than 217,000. The public now knows some of those tests included antibody tests, which do not test for active COVID-19 infections but for antibodies that detect a previous infection.

Zachary Taylor, health director for the North Georgia Health District, said the reason for the significant increase in cases is due to more testing and because people are now moving around in the community more so than they were a month ago.

"We're seeing a lot more people with mild illnesses and some who actually don't have symptoms and those people would not have been tested a few weeks ago," Taylor said. "The increase in cases is certainly evidence there's transmission in the community."

The way to stop the spread in Georgia, he said, is to test as many people as possible, isolate people who have been infected and quarantine the people who made contact with those who are infected.

"Those are the tools we're using now," Taylor said. "We have no shelter in place, and we're certainly concerned about [the increase in cases]."

Taylor said Whitfield County has not seen an uptick in hospitalizations, which is promising.

"But I'm not saying it won't happen," he said. "That's what we're worried about. We want to encourage people to wear a mask when they are out in public to protect others and obviously our most vulnerable population. We haven't had any outbreaks in our long-term care facilities, which means they are doing a really good job of protecting those residents."

Taylor said the outsize number of cases among Hispanic and Latino residents reflects, in part, that the community has had to continue to work through the stay-at-home orders.

"The spread in that community is pretty significant," Taylor said.

Jennifer King, spokeswoman for the North Georgia Health District, said her team is constantly working on outreach with the Hispanic and Latino community through Dalton Whitfield County Family Connection and other groups.

"We're working with all of our community partners and sharing all the information we have in Spanish and English," King said. "We've had social media campaigns providing information in both languages, worked with Latino businesses, grocery stores and the schools to help get the word out."

Taylor said it's been important to be in contact with the businesses and manufacturing companies that employ those in the Latino community.

Manufacturers such as Shaw Industries, Mohawk Industries and Engineered Floors have been able to avoid outbreaks at their plants.

The North Georgia Health District has 34 contact tracers working in six counties, including Whitfield and Murray counties. King said several of the tracers are bilingual.

"We can't dismiss that transmission is happening," she said. "We have noticed the sudden increase in numbers. We all have a part in this, and everyone needs to be doing their part. It's hard to remember it's out there because now we've been living with it for some time. Some people have let their guard down, and that's a mistake."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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