The surprising lessons from the Georgia experiment

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Washington Even Donald Trump was too quick. When Brian Kemp announced in mid-April that he would lift most of the corona restrictions in his state, the US president criticized the Republican governor of Georgia in front of television cameras. “It’s too early,” said Trump, “I’m not happy with Governor Kemp.”

But he did not let his plan dissuade him. Since April 24th, hairdressers, tattoo studios, bowling alleys, cinemas and massage parlors have been allowed to serve customers in Georgia again – with restrictions. Since April 27 also restaurants. And this despite the fact that the regional case numbers had just peaked at this point.

Georgia was the first region in the United States, and indeed in the entire western world, to drastically loosen its corona lockdown. At that time, most experts predicted a further sharp rise in illnesses and deaths in Georgia.

Four weeks have passed since then. Time to take stock: How did Georgia fare? And may the case have lessons for the big debate that is now just as heated in Germany as in the USA: How much and how long can the state restrict the personal freedom of its citizens to fight the virus?

The corona catastrophe feared by experts in Georgia has so far failed to materialize. According to the regional corona dashboard of the newspaper “Atlanta Journal-Constitution”, the number of newly registered corona cases in Georgia was 946 on Wednesday. On May 1, shortly after the opening decision, there were 1232 new cases per day.

Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp applauds medical personnel

In the city of Gainesville, the Republican politician thanks nurses who perform coronate tests.

(Photo: AP)

However, the number of cases is distorted by the increasing availability of corona tests. More tests mean more cases. A more reliable indication of whether a second wave of the epidemic is in the offing is provided by the number of corona patients currently being treated in the hospital. There were 959 patients in Georgia on Wednesday and 1,500 on May 1. The number of corona deaths has also decreased. On May 1 there were 33, on Wednesday 22.

The gradually decreasing numbers are the result of a so-called R-rate estimated by health experts, which was given as 1.1 in Georgia on May 1 and was 0.99 on May 17. More recent estimates are not yet available. The R rate indicates how many more people are infected by a corona infected on average. If the value is less than one, the number of cases slowly decreases. If the value is greater than one, it increases suddenly.

Several explanations for the result

Georgia has not yet defeated the epidemic, but it has not overwhelmed it. In mid-May, Anthony Fauci, a prominent epidemiologist in the White House Corona Task Force, put on record: A premature relaxation of the corona restrictions would “not only lead to unnecessary suffering and death, but also to us in our pursuit a return to normal ”. That was also on Governor Kemp.

Several explanations circulate in the United States for the surprisingly positive result of the Georgia experiment. Some warn that it is simply too early to make a judgment. Due to the long incubation period of 14 days, it cannot be ruled out that the virus is currently spreading again – without this appearing in the statistics, which are often carried out with a delay of a few days.

“We have to assume that it will take us a month or two months to see the effect of the opening,” said Leana Wen, former director of the Baltimore Health Department, the Washington Post. However, with each additional day that passes without a significant increase in the number of deaths and cases, the force of this argument diminishes. No particular epidemic hotspots are currently emerging in individual counties or cities in Georgia.

Kemp’s political opponents accuse the governor of having his state’s corona statistics beautiful. In fact, Kemp’s public health agency released a chart indicating a steady decline in new infections in the hardest hit areas of Georgia.

However, the daily updated data was not listed chronologically. The number of new infections on May 7th came immediately before those on April 26th, which in turn was followed by data on May 3rd. If you didn’t look closely, you got the impression that the decline was more even than it was in reality.

A handball trick that doesn’t change the basic picture: Corona numbers in Georgia are stagnating or falling slightly. Which still leaves the possibility that they would have dropped significantly more with a longer lockdown.

High school graduate

18-year-old Yasmine Protho, a graduate of Chattahoochee Country High School, wears a protective mask with a portrait of herself. The graduation ceremony can take place after the relaxation of the corona rules, albeit with restrictions.

(Photo: dpa)

Right-wing activists, in turn, see Georgia as evidence that, above all, democratically governed states presented the danger from the virus far too dramatically. In the late program of the conservative news broadcaster Fox News it turns into an alleged secret strategy of the Democrats to destroy free enterprise.

Some virologists believe that warm spring weather in subtropical Georgia helped slow the spread of the virus. The good weather may have played a role. But the most important influencing factor was probably another one: that the citizens of Georgia know very well about the dangers of the virus and act accordingly responsibly.

For example, at the end of April many restaurants in Georgia continued to offer takeaway food and many stores were still closed. According to data from the reservation website Opentable, restaurants in Georgia continue to record only 15 percent of the number of visitors before the lockdown. The Atlanta Democratic Mayor had also urged citizens in the state’s largest metropolitan area to voluntarily continue to comply with the lockdown rules.

“The citizens of Georgia are smart,” Kemp said at the end of April. “They are entrepreneurial and innovative, and many of them have found ways to deal with the situation safely.” Most of the people in Georgia behave in a reasonable manner according to this reading – without the government prescribing them.

Democratic states open more slowly

In the meantime, all 50 US states have followed Georgia’s example and lifted at least some of the corona restrictions – although in 17 of these states the number of corona cases has continued to increase in the past seven days.

There is a clear political dividing line here: where democratic governors are in charge, on average there are significantly more rules in force than in republican states. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that Democrats mostly rule in urban states and that there are also most of the Corona cases.

But there is also a bit of worldview behind the differences. Democrats are more in favor of leaving workers at home for a few weeks longer than exposing them to the risk of infection at work. Republicans, on the other hand, are more concerned about the individual’s freedom of choice and the survival of companies.

A forecast model from the University of Pennsylvania estimates that if lockdown continues in the United States, 157,000 people will have died from the corona virus by the end of July. A partial relaxation of the lockdown, as many states are now practicing, would add 15,000 deaths during this period, and 73,000 deaths if the restrictions were completely lifted.

Health campaign in Atlanta

Georgia relaxed the measures early on in the corona crisis – and relied on people’s reason.

(Photo: AP)

To date, the number of corona deaths in the United States is approximately 95,000. But the experts from the University of Pennsylvania also say: How the opening rate is reflected in the number of deaths and deaths depends crucially on whether the citizens adhere to the basic corona rules without governmental requirements, whether they voluntarily wear masks, for example wear.

That is obviously the case in Georgia. The picture is less clear in Texas, where Republican Governor Greg Abbott followed a similarly ambitious opening course with his colleague Kemp with a delay of a few days. Like Georgia, Texas did not meet the recommendations of the White House, which include a continuous fortnightly decline in the number of cases before the first easing.

Reason and voluntariness

Since the beginning of May, cinemas, restaurants, shops and museums in Texas have been reopening with limited capacity. Since then, the number of corona cases and deaths in Texas has stagnated or even increased slightly, depending on the indicator and the period. Above all, however, experts warn that a threatening increase in the number of cases is becoming apparent in the Dallas / Fort Worth and Houston metropolitan areas.

It is still too early to judge whether a second wave of the epidemic may be looming in parts of Texas. But the case shows that what appears to have been successful in Georgia does not have to work everywhere.

It is also worthwhile in Germany to keep an eye on the further development of the case numbers in Georgia and other US states. Because, at least as things stand at the moment, the Georgia experiment provides an argument for all those who prefer to fight against the virus on reason and voluntary action of the citizens than on state compulsion.

More: The metropolises of the US coasts show opposite corona courses. This is due to local challenges – but also to the reactions from politics and business. A personal report.

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