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Your TIGC weekend Covid-19 update: Things are bad and getting worse

Last weekend TIGC reported that 70 Georgia counties qualified as Covid-19 “red zones” and that the bug appeared to be mounting a new assault on Metro Atlanta from its fortifications in the North Georgia mountains.

Today we can report that the number of counties whose seven-day rates exceed 100 cases per 100,000 people — the “red zone” threshold set by the White House Coronovirus Task Force — is up to 96, and all 12 Metro Atlanta counties are now included in that group.

This is, obviously, part of a national trend. The AJC reported this morning that Georgia is one of 48 states that qualify as red zones. But, as usual, virus’s attacks are far from uniform, and it seems to move from one region to another in an almost deliberate manner. These two maps show its progression out of the North Georgia hills over the past week.

At the same time, the virus seems to be giving much of rural Middle and South Georgia a bit of a breather. This doesn’t mean that the virus has gone away, just that — for the moment — the seven-day case rate has fallen below the 100 cases per 100,000 people level.

But that could change, and quickly. As the bug has re-invaded Metro Atlanta, it also seems to be knifing its way back down I-75 and could easily branch off into the rural counties to the east or west.

At the moment, Whitfield and Murray counties, side-by-side neighbors on the Tennessee line, jointly constitute the hottest spot in the state. Combined, their seven-day case rate is 511.27 per 100,000 people — more than five times what it takes to qualify as a Covid-19 “red zone” — and their combined seven-day death rate is 7.59 per 100,000. The state average for the past seven days was 1.56 deaths per 100,000. The state’s three largest counties — Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb — had seven-day death rates of .45 per 100,000 people, .72, and .76, respectively.

The cause of the Whitfield-Murray outbreak isn’t clear. The Daily Citizen-News, the newspaper in the Whitfield county seat of Dalton, has covered the outbreak — including stories on the reluctance of local officials to impose a mask mandate — and editorialized about it. But a limited scan of its online stories (before the paywall came up) failed to find anything about what might be driving the outbreak.

In an editorial published today (November 21), the Daily Citizen-News noted Whitfield’s unhappy standing at the top of the new case-rate list and lamented the lack of citizen observance of recommended public health practices.

” … (M)any of us ignore the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as we refuse to wear masks and/or practice social distancing. The lack of masks and social distancing is evident all over town. We have to do better,” the newspaper added.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Covid-19 Update: Much of Metro Atlanta now a red zone

The spread of Covid-19 that had turned virtually all of northwest Georgia into a “red zone” now appears to have re-invaded Metro Atlanta.

As TIGC reported in a couple of recent posts, most of the counties in the northwestern corner of the state had been posting 7-day case rates of at least 100 new cases per 100,000 residents, which would put them in what the White House Coronovirus Task Force considers a “red zone.”

Until recently, the bug seemed to be doing most of its recent and current damage in a cluster of nearly 20 contiguous counties in north Georgia, but it hadn’t re-entered the Metro Atlanta region with enough force to push the area back into the seven-day red zone. Now it has, as this map illustrates.

Indeed, the AJC reported Friday that the head of the Cobb and Douglas county health departments had issued a special warning because of rising rates in the area. The newspaper quoted Dr. Janet Memark, the director for the Cobb-Douglas health district, as saying the rates were rising even though testing was down, and that she thought state data underestimated the actual spread of the virus.

“It’s decreased demand [for testing] but yet the percentage positive is going up,” she told the AJC. “I do think we have some substantial transmission that’s happening.”

The only North Metro and North Georgia counties that escaped red zone numbers were Gilmer, Dawson and Forsyth, and they didn’t miss it by much; their seven-day case rates were 95.5, 99.7 and 90.7, respectively.

On Metro Atlanta’s western edge, Douglas and Paulding counties posted 7-day case rates in the mid-80s, and the counties on the southern edge of the Atlanta region — Heard, Coweta and Fayette — were cooler still, with case rates in the 50s and 60s.

But the four biggest counties in Metro Atlanta all posted seven-day case rates that put them in the red zone: Fulton at 113.3; Gwinnett, 133; DeKalb, 129.4, and Cobb, 106.8

All told, 70 counties qualified for red zone status as of Saturday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), and for a change the southern part of the state appeared to be somewhat cooler than the northern half, as this map illustrates.

While there were obviously clusters of counties in Middle and South Georgia whose numbers put them in the red zone, the vast majority — again, for a change — appeared to be seeing at least a brief respite from the virus’s siege through those parts of the state.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

TIGC’s first crack at a post-mortem on the General Election

TIGC's first crack at a post-mortem on last week's General Election.

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Trump counties taking the hardest Covid-19 hit; 14-day case rates nearly 30% higher

I noted back in September (here and here) that Covid-19 case and death rates in Georgia’s Republican-voting rural counties had squeaked past those in the state’s more heavily-populated Democratic counties.

I’ve been keeping an eye on that trend, but haven’t bothered to write much about it since then. Last week’s presidential election results, however, seem to invite a fresh look.

As a little more preface, it seems worth noting that the virus did the vast majority of its early damage in major urban areas, including Metro Atlanta, while rural areas seemed skeptical it would ever find its way to them. It did, of course, and has been exacting its heaviest toll on most of those rural areas for a couple of months now.

For this update, I’ve pulled the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Covid-19 status report for election day, November 3rd, and sorted it by counties that went (according to the latest election results published by the Secretary of State’s office) for President Trump versus those that went for the Democratic nominee and apparent president-elect, Joe Biden.

This table summarizes that data sort.

As of November 3, the 30 Biden counties had better overall case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than the 129 Trump counties. Even with a significantly smaller population, the Trump counties have now suffered more total deaths than the Biden counties — 4,017 to 3,814. Perhaps even more worrying are the 14-day case rates, which are a leading indicator of things to come. In the combined Trump counties, that rate was, as of November 3rd, 27.6 percent worse than the Biden counties.

Because the virus is oblivious to county lines, it’s difficult to demonstrate county-to-county correlations between Covid-19 rates and Trump-Biden voting splits.

And, indeed, there are any number of examples of counties whose Covid-19 performance doesn’t match its politics. Glascock County, for instance, gave Trump 89.6 percent of its total vote (second only to Brantley County) but has the fourth-best case rate in the state. (At the same time, and consistent with the 14-day case rate pattern referenced above, Glascock’s 14-day case rate is just under 300 cases per 100,000 people, easily enough to put it in the White House Coronovirus Task Force’s red zone.)

Just to the west of Glascock, though, Hancock County delivered nearly 72 percent of its vote to Biden but, as of November 3rd, had far and away the state’s worst death rate (549.25 per every 100,000 people) and one of the worst case rates.

If, however, clear county-level correlations are difficult to find, mapping the data does bring regional pictures into some focus. First, this map (at right) shows Trump-Biden split as of the general election results available Sunday, November 8th, on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website. (These results appear to be nearly complete, but haven’t been officially certified yet.)

Now compare that general election map with maps below of election-day Covid-19 data from DPH. In these maps, I’ve used the same red/blue color scheme I used in the political map, but here they tell different stories. In each case, counties shown in blue had Covid-19 case rates, death rates, or 14-day case rates that were better (lower) than the state average reflected in the November 3rd DPH data; counties in red had worse (higher) rates. The darker the shade of blue or red, the better or worse they were compared to the state average.

None of the Covid-19 maps is a perfect match for the political map above, obviously, but a comparison does tell several stories. Probably the most obvious is that heavily-Democratic Metro Atlanta is now beating the state average on all three Covid-19 metrics mapped above. Early on, it bore the brunt of the virus’s attack, and still isn’t out of the woods, but now has easily the best overall case rate, death rate and 14-day case rate numbers in the state.

A second is that the swath of heavily-Republican counties in east-central and interior southeast Georgia is now suffering higher than average Covid-19 case and death rates, with more of a mixed picture on 14-day case rates. The virus took its time getting to this part of Georgia, but has now been raging there for several weeks.

Southwest Georgia, though, seems to be cooling off. This politically-mixed region of the state still carries high case and death rates, the results of an early Covid-19 attack that at one time gave this part of the state some of the worst virus numbers on the planet. But it’s 14-day case rates — reflecting current trends — are now among the lowest in the state.

The northwestern corner of the state, meanwhile, seems to be on fire, as the map to the left illustrates. Perhaps the most conservative and Republican region of the state, Northwest Georgia had for the most part avoided the worst of the virus, until recently. As of election day, 18 contiguous counties in that part of the state had 14-day case rates of 200 per 100,000 people or more.

Does any of this demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between local political inclinations and the impact of Covid-19? It’s probably a little early to draw that conclusion, although the question certainly seems a fair one to raise.

Early on, it was possible to foresee (even without considering politics) that rural areas might well suffer more from the virus than their city cousins, primarily because they were home to older, less healthy populations that had less access to healthcare and whose healthcare systems were often frail and sometimes non-existent. (TIGC said as much in this post back in March.)

But the virus has clearly become one of the most heavily politicized issues in America in the months since the pandemic rolled in. President Trump has openly feuded with his public health experts and for the most part refused to wear a mask or encourage Americans to do so, while former Vice President Biden and state and local Democratic leaders have taken the opposite tack. (Trump, of course, contracted the virus, but recovered after several days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and a significant number of his close aides have also come down with the bug.)

It’s also worth noting that Georgia is part of a national trend. The Daily Yonder, which covers rural issues, has documented Covid-19’s spread across rural America (see maps below) as well as the political overlap.

“Counties that voted by a landslide (more than a 20-point margin) for Trump in 2016 have a recent infection rate 75% higher than counties that voted by a landslide for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016,” The Yonder reported in this piece last week.

It remains to be seen whether a President Biden can prevail upon rural citizens and their leaders to follow conventional public health counsel on practices like wearing masks and social distancing, let alone how long that might take to have an effect. But it’s clear now that changes will be required to bring the virus to heel in the state’s — and nation’s — rural areas.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

Early TIGC notes on the 2020 election and the two political Georgias

Trouble in God’s Country’s preliminary take on Tuesday’s still-being-counted presidential election results:

First, Georgia’s overall political map won’t change much if at all. President Trump, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are carrying the same counties their parties have carried in the past few election cycles, as this map illustrates. Trump will carry the 130 counties shown in various shades of red (the darker the red, the bigger his margin) and Biden will dominate in the 29 shown in mostly paler shades of blue (ditto on the shading).

The good news for Democrats is that — based on vote counts pulled from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office this morning — Biden is generally out-performing Stacey Abrams, the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee (who, of course, did pretty well, coming within two points of defeating Republican Brian Kemp).

Biden’s doing a little better than Abrams in about half the counties she carried in 2018 and, perhaps even more important, added to the Democratic share in fast-growing suburban and exurban counties that are still solidly Republican, as this table illustrates:

Significant suburban and exurban counties where Biden cut into the GOP margin

The flip side of that, of course, is that Trump is largely lagging behind Governor Brian Kemp’s 2018 performance, if only, in many cases, by a fraction of a point. But his share of the overall vote trails Kemp’s in 129 counties, is better in 29 others and appears to be dead-even in one (Talbot County).

Also clear from these early returns is where the next major partisan ground war will be fought in Georgia. If Biden has gained ground in Metro Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, the Republicans appear to be trying to build a political Maginot Line of sorts that runs from Rome and Floyd County on the Alabama border pretty much due east to the South Carolina line.

The North Georgia Hills are now home base for the Georgia GOP.

The two dozen or so counties north of that line, especially those along the border with Tennessee and North Carolina, gave Trump 70 and 80 percent of their vote — as they did Kemp in 2018.

(At this writing, Trouble in God’s Country is unable to confirm reports that Republicans are planning to build a physical wall across that line (let alone that Mexico will pay for it) or that the few Democrats still hiding in the North Georgia hills are being rounded up and deported to Cobb and Gwinnett counties.)

There are, of course, still dozens of solidly Republican rural counties in Middle and South Georgia, but the difference between them and their North Georgia counterparts is that most of them are losing population and shrinking economically. North Georgia is, for the most part, growing.

From TIGC’s perspective, the bottom line in these early numbers is that — no matter who carries the state or wins the presidency — Georgia is continuing to tear itself apart politically. Only 14 of the state’s 159 counties were decided by 10 points or less. Trump carried one county (Brantley) just over 90 percent of the vote; 24 with more than 80 percent; 42 with more than 70 percent, and another 43 with 60 percent-plus.

Further reinforcing that point: Biden is getting 70 percent of his vote from 29 largely urban and suburban counties he’s carrying (and that number will almost certainly rise as the final votes come in from Fulton County and other metro area counties). Trump, meanwhile, is pulling 66 percent of his vote from the 130 largely rural counties where he’s leading.

Some 40 years ago, some editorial writers and civic leaders began to sound the alarm about the widening economic divide between what came to be called “the two Georgias.” At the time, most political leaders were loathe to acknowledge the problem. Today, though, it’s clear that there are two political Georgias, and it’s far from clear how they can be put back together.

Will 2020 be rural Georgia’s last stand?

This year’s presidential election — and tomorrow’s election-day voting — is shaping up as another rematch in the long-running political war between urban and rural Georgia. The big question is whether rural Georgia can hold off Metro Atlanta’s rising urban and suburban tide one more time.

While demographics are clearly working against the state’s rural regions, they have managed to hang on at least until now; in 2018, rural voters turned out in bigger droves than their urban counterparts and dragged Brian Kemp across the finish line and into the governor’s office.

There’s little evidence in this year’s political tea leaves to suggest that rural Georgia’s task has gotten any easier. One of the biggest clues has been President Trump’s own campaign strategy. The fact that he’s been here twice in the past two weeks makes it clear that Georgia is indeed in play (as do virtually all the recent state polls), but it’s the way he’s campaigned here that’s the dead give-away.

Instead of making a public play for the suburban women whose votes he publicly covets, he’s gone instead to Macon and Rome, regional communities that anchor surrounding rural areas that gave him overwhelming majorities in 2016. Clearly, Trump’s strategic objective is to juice his rural base and maximize its turnout, not to try to reclaim suburbs that may be slipping away.

Beyond Trump’s own campaign tactics, the most attention-getting data point I’ve found is that the 29 counties that voted for Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018 have cast 345,304 more absentee and in-person early votes than voters in the 130 largely rural counties that sided with Kemp. I mined that figure from the excellent georgiavotes.com website, which pulls data from the Georgia Secretary of State’s website and organizes it for easy public consumption.

It’s difficult (for me, at least) to read those numbers in any way except that the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has probably built up a pretty good advantage in the early vote and will begin tomorrow morning with a fair Georgia lead over Trump. The question for Trump’s rural Georgia supporters is whether they can replicate the 2018 turnout advantage and overcome what looks like an early Biden wave.

In 2018, the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp produced higher turnouts than the Abrams counties in both the early vote and the total vote. In the early vote, the Kemp counties produced 34.3 percent of their eligible vote versus 31.7 percent for the Abrams counties; by the time all the votes were tallied, the Kemp counties’ turnout was 62.1 percent versus 60.6 for the Abrams counties. That difference was arguably decisive.

So far this year, the Democrats appear to be doing a good bit better: the early vote turnout in the 29 Abrams counties (driven no doubt by Covid-19 concerns as well as heightened interest in the presidential race) is 51.8 percent versus 52.4 percent in the Kemp counties — a mere half-point difference.

Even with the improved numbers, Biden and the Democrats face some notable soft spots. One problem that seems to be repeating itself is the turnout performance difference between Metro Atlanta’s white north side and black south side.

For example, in the 2018 governor’s race, heavily white and overwhelmingly Republican Forsyth County, on Metro Atlanta’s northern edge, turned out 64.9 percent of its registered voters and gave Kemp 70.6 percent of those votes; the south side’s Clayton County, heavily black and Abrams’s strongest county, delivered only 54.4 percent of its available vote.

This year, the divide is even bigger so far: 67.6 percent of Forsyth’s registered voters have cast their ballots versus only 43.6 percent Clayton County’s. Other heavily-black, Democratic counties also seem to be under-performing in the early vote: Bibb County at 46 percent; Dougherty, 33.5 percent, and Richmond, 43.8 percent, among others.

A final question is whether the state will continue the red-to-blue shift that has been taking place over the past several election cycles, and all these challenges are, of course, intertwined. Democrats lost Georgia by five points in the 2016 presidential race and by less than two in the governor’s race in 2018. If they can gain that much ground again this year, Biden will carry Georgia and win its 16 electoral votes. Pumping up those turnout percentages in Bibb, Dougherty and Richmond, et al, is probably key to that.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020

North Georgia Trump Country now also a Covid-19 red zone

When President Trump goes to Rome, Ga., on Sunday, he’ll be visiting a part of Georgia that is deep red on two counts. It’s a part of the state he carried with upwards of 70 percent of the vote in 2016, and it’s also an area that is currently suffering one of the state’s hottest Covid-19 outbreaks.

17 NW Georgia “red zone” counties

As of Friday’s report from the Georgia Department of Public Health, 17 contiguous counties in the northwest corner of Georgia, including Floyd County, reported seven-day case rates of at least 100 per 100,000 people, the threshold for being designated a “red zone” by White House Coronavirus Task Force. Floyd County’s seven-day case rate was 235.2 — more than double the case rate required to qualify as a red zone. In the region, only Whitfield and Gordon counties had higher seven-day case rates — 281.8 and 236, respectively.

Those counties are also part of one of the state’s reddest political regions. Each one of those counties gave Trump at least 70 percent of its vote over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race — as did all the other counties in the northernmost swath of the state. (The map here shows all the North Georgia counties that gave Trump at least 70 percent of their vote in 2016.)

Why the president feels a need to campaign two days before this year’s General Election in a region he carried so heavily in 2016 is a question we’ll leave for others. But it will be interesting to see how much masking and social-distancing will be practiced at the Rome rally.

Ranking Georgia counties’ response to Covid-19: A first stab

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BREAKING: TIGC corrects an old math error, and it’s not good news

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on Georgia’s rural broadband efforts and swagged the likely cost of hardwiring the state’s unserved areas from the gnat line south at about a half-billion dollars.

In the interest of responsible journalism, I must now report that I was wrong.

Based on data now available from state and federal agencies, the cost of hardwiring unserved areas in the 100 Georgia counties that comprise Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia regions will probably be in the neighborhood of $1.4 billion. Add the unserved areas in the northern half of the state and you’re looking at a total of about $2.3 billion.

In my defense, I was working with some fairly limited data when I took that first swing at ballparking the cost of wiring rural Georgia for broadband internet service. Basically, I combined some testimony to the House Rural Development Council — to the effect that it would cost about $40,000 a mile to wire rural Georgia — with county-level road-mile data from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), made some charitably conservative assumptions and came up with a figure in the neighborhood of $500 million.

Since then, a couple of things have happened that give us a stronger basis for estimating the real costs of hardwiring the state’s rural regions.

One was the creation of the Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative (GBDI), which was spawned by the work of the House Rural Development Council and is now part of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA). One of its major accomplishments so far has been the development of what’s been billed as a first-of-its-kind map identifying parts of the state that are unserved by terrestrial internet service capable of delivering download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of at least 3 Mbps.

The Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative’s map showing areas with and without access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service. The darker gold areas have service, the lighter areas do not. For access to the live map, click here.

Study the GBDI map at right and you could be forgiven for thinking that about half of Georgia doesn’t have access to that level of internet service.

But that’s land mass. Extract the county-level data from the map and you might be surprised to learn that, even in most rural areas, a large majority of the GBDI “locations” already have access to 25/3 service. Statewide, GBDI puts the number of “unserved” locations at nearly 507,000 out of a total of just under 5 million locationsd, a little over 10 percent.

The problem is worse, of course, in rural Georgia. Nearly 312,000 of the state’s unserved locations are in the 100 counties that comprise TIGC’s Middle, Coastal and South Georgia counties — 17.4 percent of the total locations in those counties. In contrast, only about 1.5 percent of the locations in TIGC’s 12 Metro Atlanta counties are unserved.

So that gives us a sense of the magnitude of the task. Now to the question of cost.

Thanks to a new program funded by Congress in 2019 and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we’ve now got a pretty good baseline to use in projecting what this is going to cost. Dubbed ReConnect, the USDA program is now in its second year of operation and has funded 75 projects that are supposed to provide at least 25/3 Mbps service to more than 168,000 locations across the country at a total cost (including local matching funds) of more than $760 million.

Here in Georgia, there have been four awards so far. Independent telephone companies in Ellijay, Darien, Pembroke and, most recently, parts of three west Georgia counties (Carroll, Heard and Troup) are now plowing a combined total of $27.1 million into providing 25/3 service to a grand total of 6,159 locations.

That works out to $4,404 per location, which is actually a little better than the national ReConnect average of just over $4,500 per location.

The obvious follow-up question here is whether it’s worth that kind of cost to wire unserved areas of rural Georgia, especially those in serious, sustained decline.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Access to broadband internet service is essential to modern life, no matter where you live. It is the latter-day equivalent of electricity and telephone service, and both were supported by an array of public policies and funding mechanisms designed to provide them to the broadest swath of the population possible. Somehow, the same principle should apply today.

But “somehow” is a big word, with a lot of wiggle room, and these are different times. Maybe private-sector players will eventually step into some rural areas that show signs of growth, but for the moment it seems they have decided it’s not worth their time or money to plow capital into rural areas that are poverty stricken and sparsely populated.

And while that puts the onus on the public sector, I would submit that, even there, it’s reasonable to have a discussion about what constitutes a prudent use of tax funds in areas that are losing population and suffering a long-running economic decline. At what point are we simply throwing good money after bad?

Take, for example, tiny Baker County, in deep southwest Georgia. Between 2013 and 2018, its population fell 7.7 percent, from 3,351 people to 3,092, according to the Census Bureau, and its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrunk 14.6 percent, from just under $108 million to less than $88 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).

According to the GBDI map, there are a total of 1,799 locations in the county, and only eight of them have access to 25/3 broadband. Based on the ReConnect cost data, it would cost right at $8 million to wire those 1,791 unserved buildings and provide service to just under 3,100 Georgians living in a county with a shrinking economy. Is that a good expenditure of public funds that are, by definition, coming out of somebody else’s pocket?

Altogether there are 21 small rural counties (population 30,000 or less) that saw both their populations and their economies shrink in the five years from 2013 to 2018 — 20 from the gnat line south and one in northern Georgia. The GBDI map puts the number of unserved locations in those counties at 63,970; at the ReConnect average of $4,500 apiece, it would cost just under $288 million to wire all those locations.

I’m ordinarily pretty liberal when it comes to plowing public money into important infrastructure projects, but I’ll have to admit I’m struggling to see even a publc-sector business case for investing this kind of state or federal money in areas that are shedding population and economic activity.

This is not to write off Baker County or its similarly-distressed rural Georgia cousins, let alone the citizens who live there, but it is to suggest that their problems require a multi-faceted response. Spending millions on high-speed broadband won’t do any good if there’s nobody left to use it.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2020


Tiny Taliaferro County leads the state in fighting the virus

Taliaferro County hardly ever ranks anywhere close to the top of any list of Georgia’s 159 counties. A small, poverty-stricken patch of dirt that straddles I-20 a couple of counties east of Augusta, it’s home to about 1,600 people and not much else.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) puts its economy in 144th place in its latest Job Tax Credit Rankings. In its health rankings for Georgia counties, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation lists Taliaferro 123rd for health outcomes and 137th for health factors.

For the moment, though, Taliaferro County is arguably outperforming all 158 other Georgia counties in one important category: holding Covid-19 at bay.

As of today’s Covid-19 report from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), it’s the only county in the state that still hasn’t suffered a death at the hands of the virus, which has claimed more than 6,000 lives statewide. Taliaferro also has the third-best confirmed case rate in the state.

This is, frankly, something of a very pleasant surprise. The AJC’s Jim Galloway meandered out to Taliaferro County six months ago and did a nice piece on a nervy, bleeding-edge decision by the local school superintendent, Allen Fort, to shut down all the county’s schools and send his students home for what he said would be a long haul.

At the time, the bug was just getting started. As Galloway noted in his column, fewer than 75 cases had been reported in Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties — combined. Neither Georgia state government nor the White House had offered any clear guidance, let alone told folks to hunker down and shelter in place.

Fort told Galloway he took his cue from a couple of major economic decisions. The NCAA had announced the day before that it was cancelling its 2020 Final Four, which was to have been held about 100 miles west in Atlanta, and that morning, Augusta National, 50 or so miles to the east, postponed the 2020 Master’s Tournament.

If the virus was dangerous enough to prompt the NCAA and the Master’s to step back from hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, Fort thought, maybe his little school system ought to take it seriously too.

Still, it was far from clear that Fort’s strategy would work. The county is one of the poorest in the state and almost bereft of healthcare services. Its first, last and only line of defense against the virus was a small community health clinic that operated only a few days a week.

Further, while Taliaferro is located pretty much dead center in the middle of nowhere, it nonetheless straddles I-20 and therefore might have been a sitting duck for the virus. In his column, Galloway wrote that he had wished the clinic staff well, but he seemed worried. ” … it’s not likely to be a fair fight,” he wrote.

Maybe not, but so far Taliaferro is holding its own.

In addition to the fact that it hasn’t given up any deaths, the county has so far had only 22 of the nearly 300,000 in-state Covid-19 cases recorded so far.

With a population of a little over 1,600, its case rate today was 1,348 per 100,000 people. That was the third lowest case rate in the state, behind only Long County (1,260 cases per 100,000) and Glascock (1,289). The state case rate today was 2,749 cases per 100,000 people, more than double Taliaferro’s.

It’s also worth noting that Taliaferro is doing better than all five of its contiguous neighbors — Wilkes, Oglethorpe, Greene, Hancock and Warren counties. Combined, those five counties had reported 1,651 confirmed cases and had a combined case rate of 2,878 per 100,000 as of today’s report. They had also suffered a collective total of 87 deaths.

The Covid-19 pandemic is, of course, far from over, and Taliaferro County’s fortunes could easily change. If the infection does find its way into the little county, it could wreak havoc before anybody realized it was there.

Hopefully that won’t happen, and, for the moment at least, it seems worth taking a minute to recognize a gutsy decision that almost certainly saved some lives.