The number of Georgians hospitalized with COVID-19 set another record Tuesday, while deaths and new confirmed cases of the respiratory illness remained at high levels.
Some Georgia students stepped into school for the first time since March as southwest Georgia's Mitchell County and northwest Georgia's Chattooga County became the first two traditional school districts to open for in-person instruction.
Other schools keep putting off their start dates or announcing they will begin class online, with Burke County, Wayne County and Wilcox County among those announcing delays in recent days. Gainesville is the latest system to shift to all-virtual instruction to start the year.
Republican U.S Rep. Jody Hice announced he had gone into quarantine after contact with Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert and a second person. Hice said he had no symptoms and is feeling fine. Hice's Washington, D.C., staff also went into quarantine.
The number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Georgia pushed past 182,000, although experts say many cases are never confirmed. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Georgia has risen from 3,420 new cases per day on July 15 to 3,671 on Thursday. The number has been at an apparent plateau for about the last week, but is not yet clearly going down.
In Bartow County, there have been 1,350 cases, 200 hospitalizations and 55 total deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health as of Thursday afternoon.
The illness continues to spread rapidly in some other counties. Charlton and Evans counties are among the top 30 counties nationwide for per-capita spread in the past two weeks according to data kept by The Associated Press. Cases are spreading rapidly along the Florida line and in eastern parts of the state from Augusta southward.
Georgia hospitals have been voicing concerns about bed space with the surge of cases. The 3,200 people in hospitals on Thursday is a record, and critical care beds statewide are 87% full. Two of the state's smaller hospital regions — one around Athens and one in east central Georgia that includes Vidalia and Dublin — each reported one critical care bed available on Wednesday.
Although symptoms of COVID-19 are often mild and most people recover, some worsen and die. Georgia's confirmed death toll rose to 3,671 Thursday, and the 14-day average of deaths rose to a record 41.
One hopeful sign is that the rate of people testing positive has fallen over the past two weeks, suggesting that increased testing capacity is beginning to show the true extent of the illness. However, Georgia still is among the top 10 states for positivity rates, remaining well above the 5% recommended by experts as a sign that a state is doing enough testing compared to the size of its outbreak.
In Chattooga County, Superintendent Jared Hosmer said the district's in-person students had a “great first day.”
“For a first day of the school year, you almost wouldn't know anything is wrong,” Hosmer said. The district south of Chattanooga delayed online learning for the 300-plus of its 2,600 students who chose that option, the superintendent said, because it hadn't had enough time to train staff. He said the district now aims to start online learning next week.
The district isn't requiring employees or students to wear masks, but Hosmer said “we had pretty good participation” in mask wearing, which is being strongly encouraged by the county. He said he would also advise his principals to work more on social distancing to keep students apart.
In Mitchell County, officials held contests to encourage as many students to return as possible.
“There is no place like being in school in-person," Superintendent Robert Adams said in a video last week. "I think we're going to struggle with the at-home thing. But if that works for you right now, nothing wrong with it, we're OK with it, and we'll support you.”
The district is offering workbooks or online lessons for students whose parents want to keep them home.
Georgia unemployment claims fall as federal unemployment assistance set to expire
Initial unemployment claims filed in Georgia declined last week to 84,984, down 37,329 from the previous week, the state Department of Labor reported Thursday.
The labor agency paid out $778.1 million last week, including not just regular state unemployment insurance but funds from other state and federal unemployment compensation programs created to help offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
That brought to more than $11 billion the total payout by the labor department since mid-March.
“As additional claims are being filed, we have been able to maintain an impressive ratio of eligible claims filed to payouts,” Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler said. “Record-breaking payout rates represent a new standard for this department as we strive to better serve Georgians.”
Of the total payout during the past 18 weeks, the state agency has issued more than $7.7 billion in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) funds. The FPUC, which provides an additional $600 weekly payment to jobless Georgians, is due to expire at the end of this week unless Congress extends it.
U.S. Senate Republicans have proposed reducing the payments to $200 per week following complaints from some business owners that laid-off employees they want to rehire are reluctant to come back to work. Democrats are pushing to retain the weekly payments at $600.
Since March 21, the job sector accounting for the most regular unemployment claims in Georgia is accommodation and food services with 787,469 claims. The health care and social assistance sector is second with 390,018 claims, followed by retail trade with 359,438.
More than 122,000 jobs are listed online at EmployGeorgia.com for Georgians to access. The labor department offers online resources for finding a job, building a resume, and assisting with other reemployment needs.
Georgia schools poised for $6 million to boost internet access amid pandemic
State officials are sending $6 million in federal funds to help Georgia schools boost internet connectivity in areas where access to the web is poor.
The funds come as schools across the state hustle to prepare for the start of the 2020-21 school year in the coming weeks, with many districts opting to start classes all online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among ways for school districts to use the funds are for purchasing WiFi transmitters on residential buildings and school buses, which can be located close to students’ homes to give better internet access.
“This initiative will ensure schools and districts are prepared if distance/virtual learning is needed in the future, but will also expand the horizons of thousands of students long after the pandemic ends,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods in a news release Thursday.
The $6 million allocation is part of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding that Georgia has received since spring.
The state Department of Education is also partnering with the telecommunications company Verizon to help provide schools in 10 states with discounted internet plans including unlimited cellular broadband access (4G LTE) and software protections.
Georgia’s roughly 1.7 million students switched to online learning in late March as positive cases of the virus began to swell. Since then, officials have debated how to safely return students for in-person classes in the fall and support local efforts to undertake online instruction.
State officials have issued guidelines and recommendations aimed at helping local school districts decide how to hold classes in the fall via a mix of regular in-person classes and online instruction options.
The online method has been hailed as a way for Georgia students to keep up their studies during the pandemic, but many schools are facing resource challenges that the move to remote learning has exacerbated, particularly in rural areas where broadband internet service is spotty.
The U.S. Department of Education recently estimated more than 13% of Georgia’s population does not have access to broadband, while nearly 27% of the state’s students live in rural areas.
Gov. Brian Kemp touted the $6 million in federal internet-providing funds as a way to help school districts improve internet access during the pandemic and beyond.
“This is a major step to address the gap for this school year so that all Georgia’s children have access to learning opportunities in and out of school,” Kemp said.
— The Associated Press and Capitol Beat News contributed to this report.