ATLANTA – For the first time since April, some families will be able to visit relatives in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Georgia under new rules for the coronavirus approved by the governor.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Tuesday that lifts a ban on visitors implemented on April 8, but not for all long-term care facilities. In counties where the infection rate remains high, visitors will still only be permitted under extremely limited circumstances.
In another population group that’s had a lot of focus on viral spread recently, the University of Georgia announced Wednesday that the pace of new infections eased last week, with the 39,000-student university reporting 421 new cases in the week that ended Sunday.
The pandemic has hit facilities that house seniors particularly hard. Long-term care facilities account for a sliver of the U.S. population but as of Sept. 10 had experienced more than 40% of all deaths from COVID-19, according to The COVID Tracking Project. That’s more than 77,000 deaths.
In Georgia as of Tuesday, 13,859 residents of long-term care homes with 25 beds or more have tested positive for the disease and 2,407 have died, according to the state Department of Community Health. That’s about 38% of the state’s total deaths from the disease.
Kemp’s order follows a phased approach to resuming visitation. Long-term care facilities in counties where the 14-day COVID-19 case rate is greater than 100 in 100,000 or where the positive testing rate exceeds 10% will still be generally barred from allowing visitors.
In other counties, care facilities that meet certain criteria, including testing residents and staff, can allow visitors, but only outdoors. Facilities that meet an additional criterion and are in counties where the infection rate is even lower can open up to less restrictive visits.
Other states, including Florida and South Carolina, have also lifted restrictions on nursing home visits.
The virus is blamed for more than 6.5 million confirmed infections and 196,000 deaths in the U.S., by far the highest totals of any country, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. As state and local officials roll back social-distancing rules, public health experts warn the U.S. is setting itself up for failure _ again.
Georgia’s COVID-19 numbers have improved since mid-August, with the number of newly reported cases and hospitalization rate falling. As of Tuesday, the state had experienced nearly 297,000 confirmed cases and just under 6,400 deaths.
The lifting of visitation restrictions on long-term care facilities in Georgia were part of a new executive order signed by Kemp for the coronavirus. It runs through the end of the month and continues to allow local governments to require face masks under certain conditions.
Infections at the University of Georgia fell to 421 from 1,490 the week before, bringing the school to nearly 3,100 cases since Aug. 10. The positivity rate among surveillance tests the university is conducting fell from 9.1% in the week ended Sept. 4 to 7.6% in the week ended Sept. 11.
Since fall semester classes began in August, more than 7,000 cases have been reported across Georgia’s 26 public universities, which have more than 330,000 students. The University System of Georgia required each campus to hold at least some classes face-to-face, with dorms housing students.
Besides the University of Georgia, large outbreaks have been reported at Georgia Southern University, with more than 1,000 cases, and Georgia College & State University, with 680 cases. Like at UGA, cases are increasing more slowly after an early spike. Georgia Tech has reported about 750 cases since classes began, lower on a per capita basis than some other schools.
New data from the state Department of Public Health shows cases among students of traditional college age increased sharply in August. The county showing the largest infection rate among people aged 18-22 is Chattahoochee County, which includes much of Fort Benning. Beyond that, counties with the highest rates in that age group are home to UGA, Georgia College and Georgia Southern.
Some students, professors and others want all classes to be held online, or at least want all professors and students to get the option to shift their own classes online.
University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley has continued to defend the requirement for in-person instruction.
“We believe strongly in on campus instruction, the richness it adds to education and the total student experience,” Wrigley told regents Tuesday. “We will therefore stay the course, with your support.”