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Sun Belt States Experience A Rapid Rise In COVID-19 Cases. But Why Not Georgia?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

At least two dozen states across the U.S. are seeing record numbers in new daily coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. The nation's top health officials testified in front of Congress yesterday about their concerns over these spikes. Here's the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield.

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ROBERT REDFIELD: We've all done the best that we can do to tackle this virus, and the reality is that it's brought this nation to its knees.

GREENE: So Georgia is one of the states seeing a spike again. More test results are now coming in from rural parts of that state, and some farmworker communities are seeing infection rates of 50% to 70%. This state was the first to allow businesses to reopen, and yet Georgia's surge is coming far later and it is weaker than in places like Florida and Arizona which reopened afterwards. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Grant Blankenship has been tracking the numbers closely in Georgia and reports what they do and don't reveal.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: Experts like epidemiologist Ben Lopman of Emory University have questioned the reliability of Georgia's coronavirus data. But he says it is good enough to show infections have been stable at least in the last six weeks.

BEN LOPMAN: I don't think we've seen the degree of rapid exponential growth that certain other states have seen. And I think that our surveillance would pick up an increase on that scale.

BLANKENSHIP: Lopman says, as clear as that signal appears to him in the data, exactly why Georgia has not seen the same jump in caseload as states like Florida, Arizona and Texas is less so.

LOPMAN: It's unsatisfying, but there's a level of chance.

BLANKENSHIP: Data scientist TJ Muehleman runs the COVID Mapping Project.

T J MUEHLEMAN: The challenge with Georgia is that the data is then so inconsistent and lumpy that it's difficult to know what's actually happening, and it's difficult to know how trustworthy it is.

BLANKENSHIP: Muehleman doesn't think the data issues are intentional attempts to mislead, but they are real. For instance, at times, people have waited nearly two weeks for coronavirus test results in the state, casting doubt on the relationship between when a test is recorded and when it was performed.

MUEHLEMAN: But when were those tests done? For all we know, they were done in April. And this is back - clearing of a backlog. So the data that we're seeing in the Georgia Department of Public Health is - there's a lag, and it's really difficult to know exactly what's going on.

BLANKENSHIP: That's one reason Muehleman isn't sure Georgia has been a Sun Belt outlier in the first place. Then there was the period in which Georgia combined reporting of antibody tests, which tell whether you were once sick, with viral tests, which tell you the more important thing - are you sick right now? Ben Lopman says that makes no sense.

LOPMAN: These are for surveillance purposes. These are apples and oranges. And it does not make sense to put the two numbers together.

BLANKENSHIP: Ultimately, almost 75,000 antibody tests were removed from records, creating before and after periods of testing data that have yet to be reconciled. TJ Muehleman has moved on to other questions.

MUEHLEMAN: For me, the big question I'm asking is, like, well, what at-risk populations are getting hit harder than other populations?

BLANKENSHIP: That's hard to know when testing access is not spread equitably across communities. In metro Atlanta, Muehleman says, majority white areas are about five times more likely to have accessible COVID-19 testing than majority Black areas. Testing access is inconsistent in rural communities, too.

CEDRIC HARRIS: A lot of people have never been tested here. So we don't know who got it, who ain't got it.

BLANKENSHIP: That's Cedric Harris, a travelling certified nursing assistant who lives in rural, majority Black Hancock County, Ga., where per capita COVID-19 deaths are the highest in the state. In May, he'd been tested negative once but wasn't sure how to find a second test. Harris is a Black man, a demographic the CDC says is more commonly hospitalized for COVID-19. Public health testing is only available two days a week in Hancock County.

Both Lopman, the epidemiologist, and Muehleman, the data scientist, agree Georgia should have more targeted testing in areas of highest need to truly know where coronavirus is headed.

Meanwhile, Emory University will soon conduct a randomized COVID-19 survey of 1,200 Georgia homes to help get a better grip on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the state.

For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Macon, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.