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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp defended his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in fiery remarks Wednesday after a report from the White House coronavirus task force said Georgia led the nation last week in new cases per capita.
The White House report, dated Aug. 16, recommends several steps to curb the virus that Kemp has declined to take, including closing bars and issuing mask mandates in counties with 50 or more active cases.
Kemp was among the first governors to ease earlier restrictions this spring, and while infections declined for weeks afterwards, they began to rise in June and peaked in late July.
First reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the report says “Georgia’s small gains are fragile and statewide progress will require continued, expanded, and stronger mitigation efforts, including in all open schools.”
Kemp insisted Wednesday that other markers he’s watching paint a different picture.
“Right now, our hospitalizations are down 18.8% since our peak on July 30. That’s the lowest level since July 13. Our seven-day average of new cases reported are down 26% since our peak on July 24, and they’re the lowest since July 8,” Kemp said.
“If we’re the highest percent capita in the state right now, that’s because Texas and Florida and Arizona and some of the other states that were peaking a week or two ago are on the downclimb, just like we are,” the Republican governor said. “But that is not the only number that Georgians need to look at.”
The report from the White House coronavirus task force says that last week Georgia had 216 new cases per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 112 new cases per 100,000 residents.
State health officials say more than 243,000 people in Georgia have contracted the virus and at least 4,849 people have died from COVID-19.
The White House report comes as Georgia in recent weeks has become a lightning rod in a national debate over when and how schools should reopen amid the pandemic.
One of the state’s biggest school districts — Cherokee County — has temporarily closed three large high schools after the virus led to the quarantines of more than 2,000 students in the district.
Asked about the recent closure of the Cherokee County high schools, Kemp said the spread of the virus “didn’t happen in the schools for the most part. It happened because people came back to school and they already had the coronavirus.”
“So is that the government’s fault? Is that the school’s fault? No, it is not,” Kemp said.
Meanwhile, a north Georgia school system that refused to provide its latest update on the coronavirus to a local newspaper now says 85 of its students are being quarantined after ten students and nine employees tested positive for the virus.
The superintendent of the Lumpkin County School System had refused to give out the coronavirus numbers in time for them to be included in the weekly print edition of The Dahlonega Nugget amid a dispute with the paper over its coverage, the newspaper reported.
In an email Monday to school board members and the newspaper, Superintendent Rob Brown accused the paper of spreading fear in the community.
“The last time we shared data with The Nugget directly, the data was used for an online article with a headline that created unnecessary fear and panic,” Brown wrote in the email, referencing an Aug. 7 story with the headline, "Numerous Lumpkin teachers test positive for COVID-19 as first day approaches."
In an earlier email, Brown suggested his own headlines for the newspaper.
“A headline such as ‘LC Schools Closely Monitoring COVID Data’ or ‘Less than 5% of the 540 LC Employees Impacted by COVID’ could have shared the same information without causing undue fear and concern," Brown wrote.
The school system, which began its school year on Aug. 10, serves about 3,830 students in the county about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Atlanta.
It's in the same county where hundreds of young people gathered recently for a party near the University of North Georgia’s Dahlonega campus. Video of the party made national news and caused alarm in Georgia.