Georgia is not testing for the coronavirus at the levels necessary to understand how the pandemic now is affecting the state, according to a White House COVID-19 Task Force report this week.
The report, published Nov. 1, said that while Georgia is in the "yellow zone" for test positivity, the positivity rates are increasing while the number of tests has fallen, leading the White House to believe the state is under-testing its residents.
"Georgia's testing rates have significantly declined, making it difficult to interpret the current state of its epidemic," the report reads.
Throughout the pandemic, Georgia has struggled to test its residents at the same rates as other states. In the past week, Georgia averaged 24,627 new tests a day at a rate of 232 new tests a day per 100,000 residents compared to Tennessee, which averaged 24,578 new tests a day in the past week at a rate of 360 new tests a day per 100,000 residents.
Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, testing in Georgia was down 11% over the previous week, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
The White House report highlighted Northwest Georgia as a region with surging new COVID-19 cases — putting Whitfield, Chattooga and Gordon counties in the "red zone" for new cases. According to the report, "64% of all counties in Georgia have moderate or high levels of community transmission."
Chattooga was highlighted in the White House report as having a test positivity rate of above 20%. The remaining counties in Northwest Tennessee were listed as having positivity rates between 10.1% and 19.1%.
Logan Boss, spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Health's Northwest Health District, said that declining demand — not a lack of supplies or testing availability — is to blame for the area's lack of testing and high positivity rates.
"Free testing is readily available six days a week in multiple locations we also continue to promote our free testing aggressively," Boss said by email. "We continue to disseminate messaging (including a weekly video from our health director for social media) about preventive measures, precautions to take, advice, encouragement for people to follow isolation and quarantine guidelines and [to] participate in our contact tracing program."
In the past week, Whitfield County reported the second-highest number of new cases per 10,000 people in a 21-county region around Hamilton County. Whitfield reported 364 new cases in the past week, or 5.01 new cases per 10,000 residents, compared to Hamilton County, which reported a per capita rate of 2.86.
Jennifer King, spokesperson for the North Georgia Health District that includes Whitfield County, said COVID-19 testing spiked this summer — when cases were surging and free testing became open to the public regardless of whether people had symptoms. In July, the district conducted 9,450 tests in Whitfield County.
However, since then, the demand for testing naturally waned. The district performed 3,548 tests in the county during September and 5,111 in October, according to data from the health district.
"Now people are mainly getting tested if they have symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who is positive for COVID-19," King said by email, adding that the district continues to encourage residents to seek out testing.
"Our ability to track COVID-19 and prevent the spread of the virus is enhanced when more people get tested, so we do continually urge our residents to do so and we provide ample opportunities for testing," she said.
The mitigation recommendations the White House outlined in its report include wearing masks in public and physical distancing, as well as "avoiding or eliminating the opportunities for mask-less crowding in public, including bars."
Georgia counties are allowed to impose their own mask mandates under Gov. Brian Kemp's executive order. During the summer, Whitfield County residents protested a potential mandate, with some calling such a requirement tyrannical. Some residents heckled the director of the North Georgia Health District during an August news conference at which the director talked about the importance of masks. The county does not have a mandate in place.
Spikes in cases throughout the region continue to affect Hamilton County hospitals. As of Thursday, 36 of the 87 total hospitalizations reported in the county were residents outside Hamilton County, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.
The North Georgia Health District is offering free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing on Friday in Dalton and Ellijay. To register, visit www.nghd.org or call 888-881-1474.
There will also be free testing available in Dalton on Saturday with no appointment needed at the Whitfield County Health Department at 800 Professional Blvd. in Dalton.
The Northwest Georgia Health District is offering free drive-thru testing without no appointment needed in Calhoun, Cartersville, Ringgold, Trenton, Summerville and LaFayette on various days throughout the week. More information is available at nwgapublichealth.org.
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