By Beau Evans
Gov. Brian Kemp is holding off on ordering a statewide mandate to wear masks in Georgia as positive cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations are on the rise.
The governor embarked on a six-city tour Wednesday morning to urge Georgians to wear masks, wash hands and keep their distance from each other in public.
But so far, Kemp is not following the lead of several other states and the city of Savannah in ordering people to wear masks, saying Georgians should don facial coverings to protect themselves and others regardless of any official requirements.
“We shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing,” Kemp said at a news conference Wednesday.
Meanwhile, doctors at Emory University and its affiliated hospital pressed for more people to wear masks as the virus gains steam, particularly ahead of the upcoming Fourth of July weekend.
They noted hospitalizations have doubled at Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare over the past week as concerns have soared that local health-care facilities in Georgia could be overwhelmed in the near future without better mask use, personal sanitizing and social distancing.
“I think the best way to show compassion is to wear a mask. If I care, I wear a mask,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System.
As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 81,000 people had tested positive in Georgia for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. It had killed 2,805 Georgians.
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, acknowledged the recent increases in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as she joined the governor on his “Wear A Mask” tour this week.
She urged Georgians who have tested positive to participate in the state’s contact-tracing efforts amid lackluster interest in some communities for the program, which aims to quickly pinpoint and curb local outbreaks.
“We’re concerned about the upticks,” Toomey said Wednesday. “But we can work together to stop this.”
Kemp also acknowledged the number of hospitalizations – a key marker in assessing the virus’ spread – has crept up in recent weeks following the Memorial Day holiday late last month.
He stressed local hospitals are largely prepared for an influx of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 but that some facilities have sought staffing support from the state.
“Thankfully, [hospitalizations] are not going up exponentially,” Kemp said Wednesday. “It’s worrisome but not alarming at this point. And we don’t want it to get alarming.”
The governor also highlighted a slowdown in deaths caused by the virus, marking an encouraging downward trend that comes even as case counts continue rising.
But Dr. Jonathan Lewin, Emory Healthcare’s chief executive officer, tempered that optimism by cautioning hospitals will likely see deaths go up in the next few weeks as more patients receive treatment.
He also noted hospitals are facing increased numbers of patients who are younger and have slacked off on social distancing measures over the past month.
Lewin, like his Emory colleague Del Rio, urged local leaders Wednesday “to be more forceful” in compelling people to wear masks, highlighting evidence that shows states and cities in the U.S. that require mask-wearing have seen transmission rates decrease.
“From a scientific basis, we feel strongly about that,” Lewin said Wednesday. “If everyone wears a face mask, we can stop the spread of this virus.”
On Wednesday, Savannah became the first major city in Georgia to require that people wear masks in public. Other states including New York, California and Kentucky have also implemented mask mandates.
Kemp said Wednesday he had not talked yet with his legal team about whether to consider overturning Savannah’s mask mandate under his emergency executive powers, which supersede any local rules imposed during the pandemic.
He criticized the outcry from some elected officials and leaders for mask mandates as political distractions.
“The whole mask issue right now, in my opinion, is being over-politicized,” Kemp said. “And that’s not what we should be doing.”
Lewin, of Emory, also dismissed any partisanship involved with masks. He argued universal mask-wearing would bolster both public health and the state’s economic recovery.
“Whatever our elected leaders can do to increase the compliance with masking, whatever our elected leaders can do to decrease the partisanship that’s currently seen around masking, the more likely we are to get through this without seeing more economic damage,” Lewin said.