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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my last couple of TIGC posts, I’ve reported that Covid-19 case and death rates are now higher in counties that sided with Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, over his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election.
That resulted in a handful of unkind comments from readers who apparently felt it was impolite to apply such a political lens to Covid-19 data, so I decided to take an entirely apolitical swing at the numbers.
If anything, the results are even more striking. Where coping with Covid-19 is concerned, size does seem to matter: the bigger the better.
For this analysis, I’ve divided the state’s 159 counties into six population groupings — more than a half-million people (four counties); between 200,000 and 500,000 (seven counties); between 100,000 and 200,000 (14); between 60,000 and 100,000 (14); between 30,000 and 60,000 (21), and less than 30,000 (99). Then I pulled today’s county-specific Covid-19 data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) website and sorted it into the appropriate buckets.
The truth is, I’ve probably put an unnecessarily fine point on the population groupings. There’s not a great deal of difference in the results for the three largest groups of counties — in other words, counties with populations of 100,000 or more.
As the popuation groupings get smaller, though, significant differences do emerge. Taking the worst beating, collectively, are the 99 counties with populations of fewer than 30,000 people. That group of counties had the highest Covid-19 case rates and far and away the highest Covid-19 death rates, as this table shows.
The big takeaway from this is that the 99 smallest counties have a combined Covid-19 death rate that is more than double that of the four largest counties — 102 deaths per 100,000 people in the under-30,000 counties versus 47.6 deaths per 100,000 in the four largest counties.
Indeed, as the population grouping gets smaller, the death rate gets higher — and the same generally holds true for case rates as well.
I should probably emphasize that this analysis is based on a single day’s data — today’s — and that there can be some day-to-day fluctuations. I haven’t had time to string together a long-term day-over-day analysis, but I’ve done enough spot-checking of recent data to say that today’s data isn’t a fluke or an anomaly, it’s part of a trend.
We reported last week that the collective Covid-19 death rates in the largely rural and sparsely populated Georgia counties that sided with Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 governor’s race had surpassed that of the mostly urban and densely populated counties that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams.
TIGC also reported last week that the case rate trend lines were converging. We can now report that those lines have indeed crossed and that the 130 mostly rural counties that voted for Kemp and narrowly nudged him into the governor’s office now have slightly higher Covid-19 case rates than the 29 counties that went for Abrams.
Based on TIGC calculations using data pulled from the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 status updates, the case rate lines appear to have crossed on September 9th, as the chart below shows. They had run at nearly identical rates for several days before that and have been steadily separating ever since.
The case rate trend lines have been separating slowly but steadily since they crossed about a week ago. The table below shows the case rates — the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people — as the numbers tightened up around September 6th, crossed on the 9th, and then continued to separate through the 17th.
Those trends can of course change. All it would take is the emergence of a new Covid-19 hotspot in one of the state’s larger urban — and typically Democratic — counties.
For the moment, though, the current data would appear to put to rest early thinking that Covid-19 would do more damage in heavily populated urban areas. While it clearly struck first in such areas — including, of course, Metro Atlanta — it has since found its way into rural areas. Indeed, the interesection of the case and death rate trendlines coincides generally with the virus’s Sherman-like march to the sea across the state’s rural east-central and southeastern counties.
Here’s a little breaking news on the coronavirus front: The Covid-19 death rate is now higher, collectively, in the Georgia counties that voted for Governor Brian Kemp in 2018 than in those that went for his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. What’s more, the difference in the rate of confirmed cases is narrowing dramatically.
This is a little bit of a surprise. Early on, the virus hit densely-populated urban Democratic precincts much harder than remote, sparsely-populated Republican communities, and there was a good bit of credible speculation that the gap between the two might never fully close.
The New York Times took a deep dive into national data in late May and posited that while case and death rates were rising in conservative areas, it wasn’t “on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”
That’s no longer true in Georgia. The Covid-19 death rate in the 130 mostly rural counties carried by Kemp in 2018 squeaked past that of the 29 largely urban counties that went for Abrams on August 25th.
The Kemp and Abrams death rate trend lines converged through the middle part of August. They were nearly identical by August 24th — 47.52 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 47.43 in the Kemp counties. The next day, the lines crossed — 48.37 deaths per 100,000 people in the Abrams counties versus 48.52 in the Kemp counties — and they’ve been separating, fairly rapidly, ever since, as the graph above shows.
The Abrams counties have so far suffered more overall deaths than the Kemp counties: 3,095 out of population of 5.67 million versus 2,833 out of a population of 4.95 million. But even that may be changing. Since the Kemp and Abrams death rate trendlines crossed on August 25th, there have been 785 Covid-19 deaths in Georgia. Of those, 353 occurred in the Abrams counties while 432 took place in Kemp country.
While the Abrams counties are still reporting higher rates of confirmed Covid-19 cases than the Kemp counties, those trend lines are also converging. On August 25th — the day the death rate trend lines crossed — the 29 Abrams counties had a combined confirmed case rate of 2316.7 cases per 100,000 while the combined case rate for the 130 Kemp counties was 2178.6, a difference of 6.3 percent. By September 8th, the difference was down to 1.9 percent — 2529.9 cases per 100,000 people for the Abrams counties versus 2483.2 for the Kemp counties.
Put another way, during that August 25-September 8 period, the Abrams counties reported a total of 12,089 new confirmed Covid-19 cases while the Kemp counties reported 15,069 new cases.
These trends can, of course, shift. The recent death and case rate trends appear to have been driven largely by the virus’s Sherman-like march across east-central and southeast Georgia, which is heavily rural and went overwhelmingly for Kemp. All it would take to alter — indeed, reverse — these patterns would be a major outbreak in one or more of the major urban counties.
Still, the current data and trends would appear to put to rest the early thinking that the virus would be satisfied with feasting on Democrats in densely-populated urban areas. It took it a while, but it finally found its way to virtually every corner of the state’s rural areas, which have older, less healthy populations and frailer healthcare delivery systems. Those Republican hunting grounds now appear to be just as fruitful for Covid-19 as the big Democratic cities.
This morning’s AJC led with a blockbuster story based on an apparently confidential White House report that gave Georgia the dubious honor of generating the biggest increase in new Covid-19 cases in the nation last week.
According to the AJC, the White House report said Georgia produced about 216 new cases for every 100,000 people for the week that ended this past Friday, August 14th. The paper quoted the report as saying that figure was “about double” the national average.
What the story didn’t include (probably because it wasn’t detailed in the White House report) was any kind of breakdown on how the bug is affecting different parts of the state.
Not to worry. Trouble in God’s Country is here to help.
First, a quick caveat. As I’ve noted before, my arithmetic produces slightly different results than those found in the Georgia Department of Public Health’s daily Covid-19 updates. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I usually work only with in-state numbers, those attributable to specific counties, and omit cases DPH classifies as out-of-state or unknown.
The bigger reason, though, is that we’re using slightly different population numbers to calculate the case rates, which is a little weird. I pull my county population numbers from DPH’s public OASIS database, and I know those numbers are taken directly from the Census Bureau. I don’t know exactly where DPH’s Covid-related population data comes from, but it’s slightly different from the ones I’ve got.
Still, the numbers are, as the old saying goes, close enough for both government work and semi-retired, part-time bloggers.
In this case, my arithmetic puts the state’s case rate for the week of August 7 through August 14 at 205.2 per 100,000 people (versus the 216 figure cited in the AJC article). The total number of new in-state cases added during that period was 21,791.
Working with those numbers, we can begin to offer some observations about how different types and areas of the state are behaving now that we’re nearly six months into the pandemic.
Indeed, the factoid included in the AJC story that Georgia’s state-level increase of a little over 200 cases per 100,000 people is about double the national average is helpful: it gives us a point of reference for judging county-level and regional Covid-19 behavior not just within the state, but against the nation. It’s not a pretty picture.
Some 146 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted case rates of more than 100 — roughly the national average, based on the AJC’s reporting — for the August 7-August 14 period. But there’s a wide span within that group.
For that week, Appling County, located in deep southeast Georgia and home to fewer than 20,000 people, posted the most horrific numbers: a one-week case rate of 728.8. But it was hardly alone in that region. Indeed, one of the things the Covid-19 data suggests is that the bug acts and moves on what appears to be a regional basis.
This map below highlights 37 Georgia counties that posted case rates of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. As usual, the darker the color, the higher the increase in case rates.
Twenty-four of those counties make up an inter-connected chain of counties that now runs well over 200 miles from Lincoln County on the north end south to Clinch County on the Florida line.
Most of the rest of the counties posting exceptionally high case-rate increases — three times the national average — are scattered loosely around the state, although there do appear to be multi-county clusters in the southwest corner of the state and in northwest Georgia.
Clearly, rural areas of the state that were spared major infection rates in the early stages of the pandemic are now under siege.
Also apparent from this map (and the data) is that Metro Atlanta and the southwest Georgia cluster surrounding Albany and Dougherty County, both of which were savaged early in the pandemic, are so far avoiding the worst levels of increases now afflicting rural areas across east-central and southeast Georgia.
The table below lists all the counties that suffered case rate increases of at least 300 per 100,000 people from August 7 through August 14. The sort is by the case-rate increase, from highest to lowest.
Fifteen of these counties posted one-week case rate increases of 400 or more — in other words, roughly four times the national average, based on the AJC reporting.
I’ll try to loop back and flesh out a more complete regional analysis in the next couple of days.
Over the weekend, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, told CNN the Covid-19 plague’s assault on rural areas is now on a par with its toll on more densely-populated urban areas.
That’s certainly true here in Georgia. In fact, case rates are currently growing faster in rural counties than in major metropolitan centers, and rural areas by and large now have higher case rates.
To put this in perspective, Georgia is now one of 21 states accorded the dubious honor of being a Covid-19 “red zone” by Dr. Birx’s White House task force. That group recently began assigning that designation to states that meet one of two criteria — first, that the number of cases per 100,000 people rises by 100 or more over a seven-day period, or, second, that the “positivity rate” is higher than 10 percent.
Georgia makes the cut on both counts. Its cases and case rates have been rising relentlessly pretty much since the pandemic started, and its positivity rate has been floating above 10 percent for several weeks. Tuesday’s report (August 4th) from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) puts the cumulative positivity rate at 11 percent and the rate for the batch of tests reported yesterday at 12.7 percent.
As of Tuesday’s report, 141 of the state’s 159 counties qualified as red zones in their own right, as the map to the left is intended to show. Each of the shaded counties posted increases of at least 100 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days; the darker the shade, the bigger the increase. (The blank spots on the map represent the 18 counties that held their case rate increases under the 100-per-100,000-people threshold over the past seven days.)
One key story for Trouble in God’s Country is that Covid-19 is continuing to move tsunami-like across rural east-central Georgia. TIGC first reported in early July that the bug seemed to have finished savaging southwest Georgia and appeared to be moving, Sherman-like, eastward to the sea. The latest results make it clear that march is still underway.
While 141 of Georgia’s 159 counties posted increases of at least 100 per 100,000 people between July 28 and August 4, only 29 of those counties hit what might be considered stratospheric increases of 300 new cases per 100,000 in that same period.
As map below shows, 15 of those 29 counties are part of a connected chain covering much of east-central Georgia, an area that largely seeemed to escape the bug in its earlier phases. It runs more than 150 miles from Richmond County at its northern end to Atkinson County at the southernmost point.
And the case rates in most of the counties in that chain now dwarf those in Metro Atlanta. Such counties as Jeff Davis, Jefferson, Wayne, Toombs and Johnson, among others, have case rates of well over 2,000 per 100,000 people. The county with the highest case rate in Metro Atlanta, Gwinnett, has a current case rate of 1,874.18. (On the map, the number shown beneath each county’s name is the number of cases per 100,000 people that each county’s case rate increased between July 28 and August 4.)
Indeed, generally speaking, the smaller a county’s population, the bigger its recent increase in Covid-19 cases. As the table below shows, the 118 counties with populations of less than 50,000 people posted bigger increases in case rates than any of the other groups of counties with larger populations.
Interestingly, it was the groups of mid-sized groups of counties — 16 counties with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 — that posted the smallest increases (although those increases still qualified them for “red zone” status). There is no doubt a variety of reasons for this, but a couple of possibilities suggest themselves. One is that the group includes counties — like Dougherty and Floyd, among others — that suffered most of their damage in the early days of the pandemic, and their recent increases are relatively smaller. A second may be that many of these counties — Barrow, Walton, Jackson, Coweta and others — are in various stages of evolving from rural to exurban or suburban counties and have reached a stage where they can attract and sustain stronger healthcare delivery systems.
It’s really not that big a leap. In that 2016 piece I didn’t spend much time on population trends. I used the relative populations of South Georgia and Gwinnett as a jumping off point to compare their performance in economics, education, health status and other areas.
This time around, I found myself digging into county-level and regional population trends and pretty quickly got to the nut of the problem.
South Georgia needs more babies.
Actually, the problem is even more basic than that: it needs more young people who can produce babies.
Truth is, much of the planet has been slacking off in the procreation department for a while now. I would argue that this isn’t altogether a bad thing (because, I-285), but, globally, it’s gotten to be a head-scratcher and has a lot of demographers in a dither; one even called it an “epidemic.”
Things reached a point several years ago, according to The Washington Post, that school children in Denmark were being taught how to get pregnant – not only that, but that having children was patriotic. A Danish travel agency launched “Do it for Denmark,” an ad campaign that encouraged couples to take vacations and conceive children.
When a Swedish couple has a new baby, the Post reported, either the mother or father can take off 480 days and still receive 80 percent of their previous salaries. France and Germany pay a monthly allowance to families with children under the age of 20, and France grants a host of other discounts (including for public transportation and movie theaters) to the country’s children.
Now, of course, all this smacks just a teeny bit of socialism, so it’s probably going to be a tough sell in South Georgia. And given Georgia’s fondness for abstinence-only sex education, I’m not sure teaching South Georgia students how to have children has much of a chance either, although I don’t really think it’s necessary; I’m pretty sure they’ve been figuring that out on their own for a while now.
The real problem is they’re leaving South Georgia and doing it somewhere else. Between 2014 and 2019, the 56 counties that make up Trouble in God’s Country’s South Georgia region saw an exodus of just over 5,000 men and women between the prime family-building ages of 18 and 35. The perfectly predictable result of this trend is that the region is producing fewer babies. South Georgia’s baby crop peaked in 2007 at just under 18,000 and has been on a steady downhill slide ever since; in 2019, the number of new births was 14,153 (which was actually up a little from the year before).
Another part of South Georgia’s demographic problem is that its population is getting older and more and more of them are dying (or, as I once heard an actual demographer describe the situation, “aging out” of the population). The region is still producing more births than deaths, but (as the graph below shows) those trend lines are clearly converging.
Over the past five years, South Georgia has seen its number of births decline by an average of about 150 a year while deaths have risen by nearly 250 a year. If that trend continues, the two lines will cross in 2023 – and that’s before factoring in the impact of Covid-19 on the region.
Which is likely to be considerable. Scholars at the Brookings Institution issued a report in June forecasting that Covid-19 might cut total births in the U.S. by 500,000.
In 2018 (the last year for which we have death data), 28 of the 56 South Georgia counties reported more deaths than births. That’s a new high and a continuation of a trend that started about a decade ago. In 2009, only a half-dozen South Georgia counties were suffering such a deficit. Given the devastation Covid-19 has already levied in Southwest Georgia, it seems inconceivable that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon.
Having babies, of course, isn’t the only way to increase population. The other way is to attract more people to move into an area, but South Georgia isn’t doing well on that front either. Thirty-six of the 56 counties had smaller populations in 2019 than five years earlier.
Twenty-six South Georgia counties lost population due to both out-migration and drops in the number of births. These included such important commercial and population centers as Colquitt County (Moultrie), Dougherty County (Albany), Thomas County (Thomasville) and Tift County (Tifton). Virtually alone among major South Georgia communities boasting even modest population increases (including a few more babies) were Lowndes County (Valdosta) and Bulloch County (Statesboro).
As hyperbolic and audacious as that might sound, it’s not totally crazy. It’s pretty much what South Georgia is up against. By any rational assessment, its current societal structures are broken. As I’ll detail in a follow-up piece, much of its economy is shrinking, it’s losing ground educationally, and its healthcare delivery system was fragile even before Covid-19 hit. As I was finishing up this post, the AJC reported that the only hospital in tiny Randolph County, which has the fourth-highest Covid-19 case rate in the state, would close in 90 days.
The question, of course, is what to do and how to go about it. As it happens, the Republican- and rural-dominated House Rural Development Council, casting about a couple of years ago for strategies to revitalize their communities, actually stumbled toward a quasi-socialistic, semi-European idea: they proposed granting a $6,000 tax credit to anybody who would move to rural Georgia. That idea went nowhere, however, after House Speaker David Ralston politely declared it DOA soon after it was floated.
Maybe they need to revive the idea but go bigger, and with a different twist: offer cash payments and/or tax credits not just to anybody, but to young people who a.) have certain educational credentials and/or needed skill sets and b.) are willing to move and start families in select rural Georgia communities that still have a pulse. In other words, strategically recolonize dying parts of the state that still have a chance at revival and rejuvenation and focus on them (and not all, in my estimation, do have such a chance).
If an idea like that still can’t get traction, they can always think about plagiarizing that Danish travel agency.