Wear a mask. Maintain social distance. Avoid large crowds.

As Whitfield County ranks No. 10 in number of cumulative, confirmed novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases among 159 Georgia counties as of Monday afternoon, public health officials are imploring residents to follow health and safety guidelines to slow the virus' spread in the community.

Whitfield County had 3,234 cumulative, confirmed cases of COVID-19, 27 deaths attributed to the virus and 145 hospitalizations, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health's latest statistics released Monday afternoon. In the past two weeks, Whitfield County has added 931 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Whitfield County has 3,088 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents; only 13 Georgia counties have a higher rate.

Murray County had 538 cumulative, confirmed cases of COVID-19, two deaths attributed to the virus and 32 hospitalizations

Statewide, there have been 195,435 cumulative, confirmed cases of COVID-19, 3,842 deaths attributed to the virus and 19,124 hospitalizations

While more COVID-19 testing accounts for some of those figures, the high rate of COVID-19 locally is due more to failure to follow public health protocols, and "what is going on in our community is very concerning," North Georgia Health District Director Dr. Zachary Taylor said. "We're having substantial transmission of COVID-19 in our community, (and) we're going to continue to see this until the community does more itself."

Jennifer King, public information officer for the North Georgia Health District, echoed those sentiments, calling the spread of COVID-19 locally "very troubling."

"Unfortunately, convincing the public that they can have an impact on slowing the spread of this disease by practicing recommended precautions has been a challenge for health officials," King said. "We can all have an impact on slowing the spread of this disease by following simple precautionary recommendations provided by public health and the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), such as wearing a mask in public, maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet, avoiding large crowds, frequently washing our hands or using a hand sanitizer, regularly sanitizing surfaces and objects that we handle, and isolating ourselves at home if we feel ill."

"If these measures were widely practiced here, we could prevent the spread of this virus," she said. "Otherwise, transmission will continue."

Dr. Jeffeory White, founder of White’s Pediatrics in Dalton, pointed to several reasons for Whitfield County’s high — and climbing— COVID-19 cases.

“I can’t point to any one area more than others, because it’s multi-factorial, but people are running around here like everything is normal — no social distancing and not wearing masks — defying science,” White said. “No wonder our numbers are spiking.”

In addition, any time large groups are together for sustained periods of time in close proximity, whether that be in a business, on a factory floor or in a school classroom, the danger increases, he said. “If it gets in there, it’s going to spread.”

The City of Dalton and Whitfield County already require masks inside their buildings, with certain exceptions, as does the University System of Georgia, which includes Dalton State College. Numerous businesses, including Apple, Best Buy, CVS, Kohl's, Kroger, Lowe's, Starbucks, Target, Walgreens and Walmart, either already require masks in their stores or have mask mandates set to begin soon.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Covering mouths and noses with filtering materials serves two purposes: personal protection against inhalation of harmful pathogens and particulates, and source control to prevent exposing others to infectious microbes that may be expelled during respiration. At this critical juncture when COVID-19 is resurging, broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty, a small sacrifice reliant on a highly effective low-tech solution that can help turn the tide favorably in national and global efforts against COVID-19."

Public health only has a very limited number of cloth face masks, and those are "reserved for appropriate distribution in the community," but masks are available from various other sources, such as buying one, King said. Masks can even be made at home using everyday materials, and a guide to doing so can be found at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-to-make-cloth-face-covering.html.

"We certainly encourage people to wear" any masks, "but it might be more feasible for many people to wear a cloth face covering that they can either purchase inexpensively or can easily make at home," King said. "The main point is to wear one whenever in public to guard against spreading the coronavirus."

While ear loop and cloth face masks may not protect the wearer from contracting COVID-19, they do protect against spread to others, according to USA Today. Disposable face masks should always be worn with the wired edge upward and colored side outward.

Regularly washing hands, maintaining physical distance from others, and wearing masks and/or face shields are all critical steps in stemming the tide of the pandemic, White said. Everyone from businesses to schools can also do things to improve indoor air flow — the World Health Organization has now formally recognized that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is airborne, and that it can be carried by tiny aerosols — from replacing air filters to keeping windows open.

Opening windows and doors, as well as adjusting dampers and upgrading filters in air conditioning and heating systems, can help guard against airborne transmission, according to the New York Times. Adding portable air cleaners, or installing germicidal ultraviolet technologies to remove or kill virus particles in the air, are also judicious steps.

“There are a lot of smaller things we can do, and if we do those better, that can take care of bigger things,” such as reopening schools and resuscitating the economy, White said. “We’ve got to decrease the number of infections here.”

More than anything, this community needs to take the threat seriously, he said. “Please, let’s not believe this is a hoax, because it is very real.”

This is the worst public health crisis White has seen in his decades of practicing medicine here.

“This has become number one,” he said. “Before, it was the measles epidemic back in the '90s, which was horrible, (but) we had a concerted response,” which included mass vaccinations.

“This is worse, because of the lackadaisical response,” he said. “Regretfully, we’re going in the wrong direction, and it’s painful to see.”

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