Officials with the North Georgia Health District are warning that the current outbreak in Whitfield County is worse than the one in July when dozens of people died and hundreds were infected with COVID-19.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Whitfield County is dealing with the state's worst coronavirus outbreak based on new cases over the last 14 days per 100,000 residents.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, Whitfield County has recorded 1,002 new cases in the past 14 days. The seven-day moving average for new cases is 83, the highest mark since the start of the pandemic.
For every 100,000 people, Whitfield County has seen 957 new cases in the previous two weeks. The next closest county is Chattahoochee County with 874 cases per 100,000 people. Chattahoochee County also has about 90,000 fewer people than Whitfield County.
In neighboring Murray County, the 700 cases per 100,000 residents in the previous two weeks is the fourth-highest rate in the state.
Sherry Gregory is the infectious disease director with the North Georgia Health District. Gregory said Whitfield and Murray counties are "basically seeing spread across the whole community," and the spread is not concentrated in a small number of pockets.
"We've seen a huge relaxation in the community and a lack of pushing what the recommendations are and that's led to a spread," Gregory said. "The term 'COVID fatigue' is a huge issue in our area. We're seeing it in schools, detention centers, nursing homes [and] I won't be surprised at all if we see an uptick during the holidays. We're going to see it snowball."
Last week, Dr. Pablo Perez of the Dalton-based Hamilton Health Care System pleaded with Whitfield County commissioners to issue a mask mandate after he witnessed first-hand the rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Resources were slim, he said, and mask mandates were proven to slow the spread of the virus.
At the time of Perez's plea, Commissioner Roger Crossen could not be at the meeting because he was in intensive care with the virus. Crossen died a little more than a week later.
Commission Chairwoman Lynn Laughter — who lost her bid for re-election in a tight race earlier this year — has been the only commissioner to advocate for a county-wide mask mandate.
On Monday, the Dalton City Council released a statement urging people to wear masks but stopped short of issuing a mask mandate.
"It is very important that the people of Dalton and the greater northwest Georgia region realize that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over," the statement reads. "We are seeing signs of a resurgence of the virus in our area. This is not a time to let our guard down. This council is getting regular updates on the situation from local and state public health officials and we will take action if necessary."
When Gov. Brian Kemp allowed local municipalities to issue their own mask mandates, the order also lacked clarity as to how mandates would be legally enforced. That's one of the reasons the city of Dalton has not issued such an order but has passed a resolution requiring masks in city buildings, similar to one the county commission passed.
Gregory reiterated what Perez and others have said, that mask mandates would significantly reduce the spread of the virus.
"I could go to the store today and I would say 50% or less are wearing masks," Gregory said. "It's very frustrating."
Gregory also said that a lack of enforcement among businesses is also a reason the virus has come roaring back. She said that large manufacturing businesses are doing a "fantastic job" by requiring employees to wear masks. The problem, Gregory said, is when people go home and spend time together in groups outside of work.
Meanwhile, the magistrate court had to be closed after Whitfield County Chief Magistrate Chris Griffin was hospitalized with COVID-19. Proceedings for Dalton Municipal Court scheduled for Wednesday were postponed.
While Northwest Georgia deals with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the state, its Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene has doubled down on her stance against mask mandates — and even wearing masks at all, calling them "oppressive."
"Strict mask mandates [and] forced social distancing violate Americans' guaranteed freedom of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," Greene tweeted on Saturday. "Americans should be able to choose a mask or not, and more importantly how many loved ones they invite to Thanksgiving."
Gregory said statements like these from prominent politicians with a large platform are counterproductive to what public health experts are trying to accomplish.
"Citizens trust those in power, so when someone in power makes statements that are negative or against the recommendations, it does hurt public health," Gregory said. "It hurts us tremendously."
Gregory also pointed out that hospitalizations follow cases, and deaths eventually follow hospitalizations.
"We do have a lot of people in the hospital, a lot in the ICU, and unfortunately that does lead to an increase in deaths," she said. "We're doing everything we know how to do, but until we have vaccines and medications that can treat this, we're going to see more vulnerable people die from this."
In another tweet, Greene said that students in Georgia go to school without masks, even though masks are required in several of the school systems in Greene's district.
"In Georgia, we work out, shop, go to restaurants, go to work, and school without masks," Greene tweeted. "My body, my choice."
Greene's campaign did not respond to questions Tuesday by press time about her tweets or how she would act to help slow the spread of the virus.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.