Health experts plead for widespread mask use; Kemp urges Georgians wear masks but won't mandate them

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ATLANTA — As Gov. Brian Kemp travels Georgia Wednesday and Thursday encouraging residents to wear masks to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), health experts are pleading with people to wear them.

With the Fourth of July holiday looming, experts at Atlanta's Emory University are worried the state will see another large increase of coronavirus cases as it has in the weeks since Memorial Day weekend.

Another spike could possibly lead to a meltdown of Georgia’s health care system if hospital capacity is reached, they said.

While Kemp has been adamant against mandating Georgians to wear masks in public, experts are pushing the measure as the best way to curb coronavirus spread without having to roll back the state's reopening.

Jonathan Lewin, chief executive officer of Emory Healthcare, said Wednesday it “is very concerning” to see state and national case totals rising at a pace similar to the start of the outbreak. The Emory health system, he said, doubled its number of COVID-19 positive inpatients in the last week.

No one wants to see Georgia shut down the economy and go into another lockdown, Lewin said. Universal use of masks is the “simplest thing” that can be done to prevent a lockdown moving forward.

“Whatever our elected leaders can do to increase the compliance with masking, whatever our elected leaders can do to decrease the partisanship that is currently seen around masking, the more likely we are to get through this without seeing more economic damage,” he said.

Georgia saw record-high coronavirus case increases in three- consecutive days last weekend, signaling that the pandemic is far from over in the Peach State. In the last 24 hours, Georgia hit another high, adding nearly 3,000 more cases.

State agencies tasked with pandemic response are already prepping resources for a possible second wave of cases.

As the state grows closer to full hospital capacity, Lewin said, the health outcomes for patients suffer as doctors and health care workers are strained.

“It becomes a challenge to see our people working, taking care of these increasing volumes,” he said. "It’s tough to keep morale up when we see that our fellow citizens could be preventing this but they're not.”

Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an infectious disease expert, said Georgia has not seen a large increase in deaths as it has cases, because a majority of the infected are younger people. With cases increasing since Memorial Day, the younger population needs to wear masks and maintain social distancing during the holiday weekend.

"We really need to remember that there is a pandemic happening right now,” he said. “... I am really concerned about this holiday and what people will do.”

Politics aside, they said, local leaders in areas with increasing case rates should be more “forcible” when requiring masks.

“Saving lives is not a partisan issue,” Lewin said. “... The closer we can get to universal masking, the better off we’ll be as a society, the better off we’ll be as a city, as a state, as a country.”

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson signed an emergency order Tuesday mandating most Savannah residents wear masks in public until further notice — citing record increases in case numbers in the city.

“Frankly and honestly, I do not believe we have another choice,” Johnson said in a press release.

"The point of this order is not to be punitive,” he continued. "If we see someone without a face covering, the first thing we will do is offer them one. If that person refuses the face covering, that’s a different issue entirely."

Kemp's executive orders outlining coronavirus restrictions first imposed in April superseded local government mandates. It is unclear how Kemp will handle Johnson's mask requirement.

But Kemp reaffirmed as he kicked off his “Wear a Mask” tour of Georgia that he would not mandate masks statewide.

“We shouldn’t get to that,” Georgia Public Broadcast reported Kemp saying Wednesday morning. “We shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing.”

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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