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Posts tagged ‘Georgia Department of Public Health’

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

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.

Even a nonpartisan plague gets politicized in 21st century America

It was, of course, inevitable that the Covid-19 pandemic would quickly be viewed through a political lens.  I’m as guilty as anybody.  Pretty early on, I was complaining on Facebook about President Trump’s bungling of the nation’s response to the plague, and here on Trouble in God’s Country I took note of the different strategies pursued by Republican governors here in the bright red old south versus their liberal Democratic counterparts the far west.

On Monday, The New York Times published a report that took the first big look (at least that I’ve seen) at whether the ugly little virus was wreaking more havoc on Democrats or Republicans.  Under the headline “The Coronavirus is Deadliest Where Democrats Live,” the Times reported:

“Democrats are far more likely to live in counties where the virus has ravaged the community, while Republicans are more likely to live in counties that have been relatively unscathed by the illness, though they are paying an economic price. Counties won by President Trump in 2016 have reported just 27 percent of the virus infections and 21 percent of the deaths — even though 45 percent of Americans live in these communities, a New York Times analysis has found.”

I’d been thinking about doing the same sort of piece about Georgia, but was concerned that any such analysis would be flawed by a variety of factors, including limited data and questions about the extent of testing in certain parts of the state, especially rural areas.  I still have those concerns, but if the great gray lady can hold forth on this topic, so can Trouble in God’s Country.

The Times sorted national Covid-19 data by counties that voted for Trump in 2016 versus those that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton.  I used county-level data from Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race and mashed it up with Covid-19 cases and deaths reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health as of early Tuesday morning, May 26.

Georgia’s Democratic counties — the 29 that voted for Stacey Abrams in 2018 — have so far borne the brunt of the virus’s attack, but the picture here isn’t as lopsided as the national breakdown reported by the Times.

The Abrams/Democratic counties are home to 53.2 percent of the state’s population and have so far suffered 55.8 percent of the infections and 57.4 percent of the Covid-19 deaths.  The Abrams counties were for the most part heavily and densely populated urban counties, including the largest counties in Metro Atlanta, along with major out-state counties and a handful of smaller rural counties.

The 129 counties carried by the ultimate winner in that 2018 race, Republican Brian Kemp, claim 46.8 percent of the state’s population and so far have posted 44.2 percent of the Covid-19 cases and 42.6 percent of the deaths.  Governor Kemp’s counties were largely rural counties (as the map here shows). 2018 Unshaded Map

The Times also reports that: “In the country as a whole, outbreaks in conservative rural counties are rising, but not on a scale that would close the gap in the virus’s impact on red and blue counties.”

I’m skeptical that holds here in Georgia.  While Abrams’s Democratic counties have logged more cases and deaths than Kemp’s Republican counties, their overall case rates and Covid-19 death rates aren’t that different.  In Abrams’s counties, 387.8 people per 100,000 have contracted the virus and 18.3 per 100,000 have died; in Kemp’s counties, 346.3 people per 100,000 have tested positive while 15.5 per 100,000 have died.

In addition to having relatively comparable case and death rates, my analysis of an admittedly limited body of DPH data suggests that case rates in rural Georgia are ticking up at least a little faster than in urban areas.  From May 16 through May 26, case rates in the Kemp counties rose 17.6 percent versus 14.5 percent in the Abrams counties.

Two other factors contribute to my suspicion that the gap between the Kemp and Abrams counties might continue to close.  One is that it’s still not clear that sufficient testing is being done in rural counties.  The other is that there’s a growing body of polling and other data to suggest that Republicans, perhaps especially those in rural areas, are taking the virus less seriously than their Democratic counterparts and not doing as good a job of following masking and social-distancing recommendations (here’s one good story on this phenomenon).

Bottom line, while more densely-populated Democratic counties may have represented low-hanging fruit for Covid-19, it’s far from clear that it hasn’t been able to find its way to Georgia’s sparsely-populated rural counties.  If testing becomes more pervasive in rural Georgia and its residents are indeed taking a casual attitude toward the virus, the gap between the Democratic and Republican counties will almost certainly close up.

My hunch is that we’ll eventually realize that the virus itself is the only truly nonpartisan actor in this ongoing tragedy.


Following are lists of the counties carried by Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, along with data on the number of positive Covid-19 cases and deaths as of the morning of May 26, 2020.  To conduct this analysis and show the totals and case rates by the two groups of counties, I had to recalculate the county-specific case rates and then calculate the totals and rates for each group.  For some reason, the case rate results I got were a little different from those published by DPH.  As the denominator, I used the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimates.  The equation for calculating the case rates is straightforward: (Positive Cases/2019 Population Estimates) X 100,000.  In the interest of transparency, I’m showing both the DPH Case Rates (as published on its website) and the TIGC Case Rate Calculation.

Kemp Counties:

County Positive Cases Deaths DPH Case Rate 2019 Population Estimates TIGC Case Rate Calculation
Appling 134 13 721.9 18,386 728.8
Atkinson 31 2 372.2 8,165 379.7
Bacon 77 2 675.2 11,164 689.7
Baker 33 2 1059.1 3,038 1086.2
Banks 73 0 365.3 19,234 379.5
Barrow 292 11 338.0 83,240 350.8
Bartow 443 36 399.9 107,738 411.2
Ben Hill 61 1 366.5 16,700 365.3
Berrien 37 0 192.0 19,397 190.8
Bleckley 38 0 296.0 12,873 295.2
Brantley 51 2 265.6 19,109 266.9
Brooks 67 9 426.0 15,457 433.5
Bryan 70 5 178.9 39,627 176.6
Bulloch 52 2 65.4 79,608 65.3
Burke 123 4 550.5 22,383 549.5
Butts 211 21 838.2 24,936 846.2
Camden 55 1 102.0 54,666 100.6
Candler 13 0 120.0 10,803 120.3
Carroll 472 24 392.9 119,992 393.4
Catoosa 105 0 152.7 67,580 155.4
Charlton 29 1 218.9 13,392 216.5
Chattahoochee 25 0 232.6 10,907 229.2
Chattooga 24 2 96.9 24,789 96.8
Cherokee 831 29 311.7 258,773 321.1
Clinch 56 1 841.4 6,618 846.2
Coffee 250 13 580.8 43,273 577.7
Colquitt 349 14 768.8 45,600 765.4
Columbia 224 6 141.2 156,714 142.9
Cook 46 2 263.8 17,270 266.4
Coweta 376 8 247.4 148,509 253.2
Crawford 26 0 212.6 12,404 209.6
Crisp 223 7 1000.5 22,372 996.8
Dade 27 1 167.1 16,116 167.5
Dawson 103 1 381.2 26,108 394.5
Decatur 153 4 581.3 26,404 579.5
Dodge 48 2 235.5 20,605 233.0
Dooly 172 12 1283.6 13,390 1284.5
Early 235 29 2316.2 10,190 2306.2
Echols 62 0 1562.1 4,006 1547.7
Effingham 63 1 98.4 64,296 98.0
Elbert 71 0 374.8 19,194 369.9
Emanuel 27 2 119.1 22,646 119.2
Evans 5 0 46.8 10,654 46.9
Fannin 40 1 152.0 26,188 152.7
Fayette 221 13 188.0 114,421 193.1
Floyd 228 14 228.2 98,498 231.5
Forsyth 480 12 190.1 244,252 196.5
Franklin 39 1 167.2 23,349 167.0
Gilmer 137 0 436.1 31,369 436.7
Glascock 1 0 33.1 2,971 33.7
Glynn 87 1 101.1 85,292 102.0
Gordon 138 15 237.7 57,963 238.1
Grady 93 4 379.0 24,633 377.5
Greene 64 7 341.9 18,324 349.3
Habersham 502 19 1096.1 45,328 1107.5
Hall 2327 41 1127.7 204,441 1138.2
Haralson 36 2 117.2 29,792 120.8
Harris 83 4 239.1 35,236 235.6
Hart 26 0 99.6 26,205 99.2
Heard 28 2 226.4 11,923 234.8
Houston 349 16 222.2 157,863 221.1
Irwin 24 1 254.4 9,416 254.9
Jackson 148 4 198.1 72,977 202.8
Jasper 31 1 218.3 14,219 218.0
Jeff Davis 34 1 224.5 15,115 224.9
Jenkins 18 1 209.9 8,676 207.5
Johnson 81 2 838.4 9,643 840.0
Jones 34 0 118.9 28,735 118.3
Lamar 53 1 273.9 19,077 277.8
Lanier 14 2 135.3 10,423 134.3
Laurens 104 1 219.9 47,546 218.7
Lee 354 22 1181.1 29,992 1180.3
Lincoln 15 0 184.6 7,921 189.4
Long 12 1 60.3 19,559 61.4
Lowndes 250 4 212.1 117,406 212.9
Lumpkin 91 1 269.2 33,610 270.8
Madison 39 1 129.2 29,880 130.5
Marion 49 2 590.9 8,359 586.2
McDuffie 63 5 291.7 21,312 295.6
McIntosh 12 0 82.4 14,378 83.5
Meriwether 78 2 371.1 21,167 368.5
Miller 38 0 659.3 5,718 664.6
Mitchell 399 32 1809.0 21,863 1825.0
Monroe 118 8 425.6 27,578 427.9
Montgomery 10 0 108.4 9,172 109.0
Morgan 37 0 193.3 19,276 191.9
Murray 78 1 193.7 40,096 194.5
Oconee 105 5 251.6 40,280 260.7
Oglethorpe 58 5 380.6 15,259 380.1
Paulding 291 11 168.7 168,667 172.5
Peach 70 3 255.7 27,546 254.1
Pickens 43 3 128.2 32,591 131.9
Pierce 90 3 460.5 19,465 462.4
Pike 50 2 265.1 18,962 263.7
Polk 97 0 223.1 42,613 227.6
Pulaski 39 2 358.0 11,137 350.2
Putnam 88 8 402.1 22,119 397.8
Quitman 11 1 479.5 2,299 478.5
Rabun 15 1 88.3 17,137 87.5
Schley 16 1 303.3 5,257 304.4
Screven 28 2 201.4 13,966 200.5
Seminole 43 2 528.3 8,090 531.5
Spalding 259 17 374.8 66,703 388.3
Stephens 123 2 467.2 25,925 474.4
Tattnall 15 0 59.0 25,286 59.3
Taylor 21 2 263.9 8,020 261.8
Telfair 33 1 210.9 15,860 208.1
Thomas 313 31 704.5 44,451 704.1
Tift 228 15 558.4 40,644 561.0
Toombs 50 4 185.3 26,830 186.4
Towns 22 1 182.8 12,037 182.8
Treutlen 8 0 117.2 6,901 115.9
Troup 260 9 369.2 69,922 371.8
Turner 105 12 1300.2 7,985 1315.0
Twiggs 14 0 173.1 8,120 172.4
Union 39 1 153.9 24,511 159.1
Upson 275 33 1046.5 26,320 1044.8
Walker 96 0 137.9 69,761 137.6
Walton 196 10 204.6 94,593 207.2
Ware 218 14 608.0 35,734 610.1
Washington 73 1 359.6 20,374 358.3
Wayne 17 0 56.7 29,927 56.8
Webster 11 1 431.4 2,607 421.9
Wheeler 9 0 113.8 7,855 114.6
White 94 3 296.0 30,798 305.2
Whitfield 283 7 270.4 104,628 270.5
Wilcox 98 13 1114.9 8,635 1134.9
Wilkes 32 1 319.6 9,777 327.3
Wilkinson 65 4 728.8 8,954 725.9
Worth 210 19 1042.6 20,247 1037.2
         17,137 765     4,948,281 346.3

Abrams Counties:

County Positive Cases Deaths DPH Case Rate 2019 Population Estimates TIGC Case Rate Calculation
Baldwin 330 25 742.8 44,890 735.1
Bibb 435 24 285.9 153,159 284.0
Calhoun 128 5 2026.3 6,189 2068.2
Chatham 448 21 153.3 289,430 154.8
Clarke 232 13 178.8 128,331 180.8
Clay 35 2 1225.9 2,834 1235.0
Clayton 1132 43 371.3 292,256 387.3
Cobb 2795 146 353.5 760,141 367.7
DeKalb 3305 104 416.7 759,297 435.3
Dougherty 1730 140 1924.3 87,956 1966.9
Douglas 504 22 331.8 146,343 344.4
Fulton 4080 199 371.2 1,063,937 383.5
Gwinnett 3198 121 329.3 936,250 341.6
Hancock 191 22 2331.3 8,457 2258.5
Henry 641 19 267.2 234,561 273.3
Jefferson 29 1 189.4 15,362 188.8
Liberty 67 0 108.2 61,435 109.1
Macon 95 6 731.4 12,947 733.8
Muscogee 564 17 294.3 195,769 288.1
Newton 311 10 276.8 111,744 278.3
Randolph 174 19 2576.3 6,778 2567.1
Richmond 534 19 264.0 202,518 263.7
Rockdale 267 9 281.2 90,896 293.7
Stewart 44 0 717.9 6,621 664.6
Sumter 449 41 1527.3 29,524 1520.8
Talbot 35 1 568.4 6,195 565.0
Taliaferro 1 0 61.3 1,537 65.1
Terrell 211 26 2492.0 8,531 2473.3
Warren 18 0 345.5 5,254 342.6
       21,983           1,055     5,669,142 387.8





Rural Georgia never recovered from the Great Recession. Now comes COVID-19

There’s a persistent pattern I’ve noticed in various buckets of economic, population, and education data, but I’ve never fully connected the dots or taken a stab at suggesting what it all might mean.  Now seems like a good time to do that.

Rural Georgia — and especially Middle and South Georgia — got the crap kicked out of it by the Great Recession and never has recovered.  Maybe that’s been obvious to everybody else, but it might be useful to look at several data points to get a sense of just how bad the damage has been — especially now that COVID-19 has rolled in and begun raining its own special brand of hell down on the state, and especially southwest Georgia.

I think the first part of the Great Recession picture I noticed was the result of an almost whimsical notion on my part.  I’d made numerous references to “the death of rural Georgia,” but I was thinking metaphorically about local economies and the collapse of various critical parts of community infrastructures, like school systems and hospitals.

Then one day I wondered if some of them might really be, literally, dying.

Turns out that’s an easy enough thing to check.  Thanks to the Georgia Department of Public Health’s excellent, publicly-accessible OASIS database, you can easily download county-level birth and death data for the past 24 years (since 1994) and use it to easily see whether many counties were reporting more deaths than births.

For about the first dozen or so years — from 1994 until 2009 — there wasn’t much news in those numbers.  The number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated up and down between a high of 19 (2002) and a low of eight (2006).

But then, coinciding with the onset of Great Recession, that number began a steady climb.  The year 2007 saw 13 counties report more deaths than births, an average year; in 2008, the number rose to 18,  a significant jump but still within the range seen up until that point.  In 2010, the number of counties reporting more deaths than births ticked up to 20 — not much of an increase, but a new high.  Since then, as this graph shows, the number has climbed steadily and dramatically.

More Deaths than Births Column Graph

As of 2018, 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties reported more deaths than births.  Of those, 78 are outside Metro Atlanta and the vast majority are small rural counties, as the map to the right illustrates.2018 More Deaths Than Births

The only Metro Atlanta county to make this group was Fayette County, long recognized as a redoubt for retirees well beyond child-bearing age.

Of course, suffering more deaths than births is not the only way to lose population, but it can hardly be regarded as a positive trend.  More than 60 counties lost population in the 10-year period from 2009 through 2018.

The second data point I noticed had to do with education — specifically, the number of high school graduates each county was sending to a University System of Georgia (USG) college or university. I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never really spotlighted how the pattern changed with the onset of the Great Recession.

Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect. But (as this graph shows) the number of freshmen being sent from those counties to USG institutions started to flatten out and decline in 2008 and ’09, and then basically fell off a cliff for the next several years before beginning what looks like a relatively weak recovery.

Metro Atlanta enrollment also took a significant hit, but it recovered faster and finally got back to its high-water mark in 2017 and ’18.  The other 147 counties saw their combined numbers drop through 2014 before showing any improvement, and they are still well below the numbers they posted prior to the Great Recession.

Finally, economics.  Based on various pots of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) data, I’ve reported that Metro Atlanta suffered a bigger initial economic hit but recovered faster and has since widened the gap between itself and the rest of the state.  But perhaps the clearest picture emerged late last year when the BEA, a unit of the Commerce Department, published county-level Gross Domestic Product (GDP) data for the first 18 years of this century.

The pattern is the same, as this graph illustrates.  GD{ Growth Metro Atlanta vs. 147 Counties

The 12 Metro Atlanta counties suffered significant drops in GDP in 2008 and ’09, and it took the region until 2013 to get back to pre-Great Recession levels.  The rest of the state took a softer hit but needed an extra year — until 2014 — to get back to pre-recession highs, and the growth since then has been fairly tepid.

This table shows GDP by region for each of the Trouble in God’s Country regions for selected years ($s in 000s).  Regional GDP ChartThe key takeaways from this are that — since the state began emerging from the recession in about 2013 — my TIGC Middle Georgia and South Georgia regions have lagged badly behind the rest of the state (and Metro Atlanta in particular), struggling to average a growth rate of one percent a year.

I can probably get an argument from actual economists or statisticians about cause-and-effect, but I’ll go out on a limb here and conjecture that the Great Recession set in motion forces that have contributed dramatically to the continued decimation of Georgia’s (and no doubt America’s) rural regions.

Significant areas of rural Georgia were suffering population loss and economic contraction even before COVID-19 hit (and now they’re sending fewer young people to college, let alone getting them back home if and when they graduate).

As perhaps the most dramatic example, Dougherty County lost more than three percent of its population and five percent of its GDP between 2009 and 2018 — and that, obviously, was before the novel coronavirus turned it into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl.

The same, indeed, is true for the entire southwest Georgia region.  Nearly every county in the Albany region has suffered both population losses and GDP contractions in the past decade, and now they have among the worst COVID-19 case rates in the nation and probably on the planet.

That, I think, is the new definition of trouble in God’s country, and it’s difficult to even envision what a recovery strategy and process might look like.  Whatever that strategy and process turns out to be, it will probably take generations to accomplish.








Covid-19 may stir a perfect storm for rural Georgia

When I began work on this project some years back and came up with the title “Trouble in God’s Country,” I was thinking about things like the urban-rural divide in economics, education, healthcare, and politics.  It never crossed my mind that a new plague might come along that would stir up what might be a perfect storm for rural Georgia.

To be sure, Metro Atlanta and the state’s other urban areas will obviously take huge beatings in this as well, but rural communities may prove even more vulnerable, and not even in the long run.  Without even bothering to run through my usual tons of data, we can take judicial note of certain indisputable realities.

The most basic is that Georgia’s rural communities are older and less healthy.  That alone puts a Covid-19 target on their backs.  Add to that a healthcare delivery system that might charitably be described as frail and you’ve already got the makings of a heaping helping of trouble in God’s country.

But there’s more.  You can stir politics, religion, and crime into the mix.  As I’ve documented before, rural Georgia is overwhelmingly Republican and pro-Trump, and there’s already national polling by Pew Research suggesting that Republicans are taking Covid-19 less seriously than Democrats (or at least were until President Trump and FOX News began shifting tone earlier this week).

From the Pew report on its polling: “ … a vast majority of Republicans (76%) say the news media have exaggerated the risks associated with the virus – 53% greatly and 24% slightly – while far fewer (17%) say the media have gotten it about right. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely than Republicans to think the news media have gotten the level of risk about right (41%).”

As for religion and crime, it’s not for nothing that the region of Georgia from the gnat line south is known as both the Bible Belt and the Prison Belt.  Both churches and prisons hold the potential to serve as lethal vectors for the bug.  I started canvassing rural Georgia contacts earlier this week and one common theme in the feedback revolved around a reluctance to cancel church services; as things have worked out, it sounds like the cancellations are indeed taking place, maybe a week later than they might have.  In several communities, churches are reportedly planning to live-stream their services via Facebook and other technologies.

Prisons are a different story.  According to the Georgia Department of Corrections’ website, its 34 state prisons house 52,000 felony offenders, and it’s difficult to imagine a more active breeding ground for Covid-19.  The vast majority of those prisons are in rural Georgia, most of them in Middle and South Georgia (as the red dots on GDC’s facilities map, here, illustrate). DOC Facilities Map

Those prison populations are constantly ebbing and flowing, as newly sentenced felons begin serving their time and those who have completed their sentences are freed.  Meanwhile, thousands of rural Georgians who work at those prisons come and go to fill the three daily shifts at each of them.

As it turns out, one of those employees has already tested positive for Covid-19, as both GDC and the AJC reported yesterday, although GDC hasn’t said where the employee worked.  So far, the department hasn’t reported any inmate infections, but it’s obviously a significant concern: GDC’s home page currently features a “COVID-19 UPDATES” banner and a “Covid19 Response” statement detailing the department’s response to the bug.  Among other things, all visitation has been suspended and prisoner movement is being limited to “required medical transfers.”

As for positive tests around the state, those now appear to be seeping rapidly into rural Georgia.  Any early expectations that the virus might do most of its damage in urban areas and not find its way to the hinterlands is being undercut by daily reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health.   The number of positive tests went from 197 in 28 counties on Tuesday to 287 in 34 counties on Wednesday (with the home counties of a half-dozen victims “unknown”).

If, as these maps suggest, it turned up first in Metro Atlanta and North Georgia, it is now making its way below the gnat line.

And there’s some evidence that the reality on the ground in some localities is outpacing the information being reported on a daily basis by DPH.  Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a South Georgia hot spot, and DPH today put the number of confirmed cases there at 20.  But at about the same time DPH was posting its Wednesday numbers, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany was holding a press conference where, according to the Albany Herald, it reported two more deaths (for a total of four), a total of 40 patients who had tested positive (and were either in the hospital or at home), and nearly 500 more area residents who were still awaiting test results.  Six Phoebe Putney employees have tested positive, the Herald reported.

And Thursday evening, the Tallahassee (Fla.) Memorial Hospital reported that an Early County, Ga., woman had died there of the virus.


If rural Georgians were a little slower than their city cousins to react to the Coronavirus threat, they may now be taking it more seriously.  I canvassed a half-dozen contacts early in the week and then again yesterday and today.  All reported that the pace seemed to be picking up.  One South Georgia contact who reported earlier this week that people were mocking the “panic” and not changing their behavior indicated earlier today that was changing; more and more businesses cutting hours and more people were self-isolating.

Another contact, Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority, emailed me around mid-afternoon that it was “safe to say that we are seeing changes in day-to-day behavior.  Foot traffic in our office is down and the citizens that continuously support our locally owned eateries are more than likely to get their meal to-go rather than dining in.  The best that I can put it is that social distancing is tough in a tight-knit community, yet a majority of our citizens are taking precautions.”

And this from a northeast Georgia weekly newspaper editor: “Day-to-day has changed drastically. A lot of parents are getting a crash course in home-schooling and remote, electronic and digital learning. It also shows in dramatic fashion how a lack of adequate broadband can be a real disadvantage to a rural county without that kind of infrastructure!

“The question about the seriousness of the situation being slow to take hold was a good one,” he added.  “On a Tuesday, the track coach was planning on winning the state championship. On Friday he was bemoaning the fact that his team would probably not even get a shot at that achievement.”

‘Hey, Baby, you wanna help save America from socialism?’

A young up-and-comer in the Georgia Republican Party made headlines recently when he proclaimed that Republicans have a “fertility advantage” and suggested that a core GOP strategy going forward would be, basically, to out-breed the Democrats.

Brant Frost V, who is the second vice chair of the state GOP, told a recent meeting of Oconee County Republicans:

“Christian and conservative women have a 35 percent fertility advantage over Democrat women.  And the more conservative a woman is, the more likely she is to be married and have lots of kids – three, four, five, six kids.  And the more liberal and leftist a woman is, the less likely she is to even be married and have any children at all …”

I’m not making this up.  You can watch the video here.  Frost begins his remarks about an hour and seven minutes into the meeting.

As political Hail Marys go, you’ve got to give Frost credit for audacity.  I’m not sure it’ll work politically, but it’s bound to have a major impact on the Christian conservative singles-bar scene.  (“Hey, Baby, you wanna help save America from socialism?”)

But here’s the thing: Frost has absolutely zeroed in on the Republicans’ political problem.

According to data recently posted by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), 79 of Georgia’s 159 counties had more deaths than births in 2018.

That’s actually news: it’s a record high, and it extends an alarming trend that started about a decade ago.  DPH’s public databases of births and deaths go back to 1994, and for about the first 15 years the number of counties reporting more deaths than births floated between about 10 and 20.  But that changed starting in 2010, as this graph shows.

More Deaths than Births Column Graph

These numbers are politically relevant to Frost’s grand strategy for a couple of reasons.  First, 78 of the 79 counties are rural; the only one that’s not is Fayette County, long recognized as a popular redoubt for retirees well past child-bearing age.  It’s also dependably Republican.

Second, Georgia’s rural regions have voted overwhelmingly Republican in the recent past.  Georgia’s current Republican governor, Brian Kemp, owes his narrow election over Democrat Stacey Abrams last year to extraordinarily high turnout and huge margins in rural Georgia.

And the importance of Frost’s vision – for conservative women to have “three, four, five, six” babies each – becomes even clearer when you drill down into the data and break it down by race.  Whites voted three-to-one for Kemp while blacks went more than nine-to-one for Abrams, according to an election-season poll of Georgia voters.

The number of counties reporting more white deaths than births was 104.  Eighty-four of those counties voted for Kemp.

These maps should leave little doubt about the vital importance of Frost’s strategy.  The first one spotlights the counties that had more white deaths than births in red; the second one shows the counties that went Republican in the 2018 gubernatorial in red and the ones that voted Democratic in blue.  It’s obviously not a perfect match, but it’s enough of an overlap that it ought to give your average GOP strategist a little heartburn.


Further, 57 of Kemp’s counties lost population between 2012 and 2017, according to Census Bureau estimates, and most of the Kemp counties that grew did so at rates that lagged the state average and, critically, traditionally Democratic urban areas.

That’s not the end of Frost’s political math problems.  At this point, there’s a fair body of polling data to suggest that Millennials lean decidedly toward the Democratic Party.  Last year Pew Research put the percentage of Millennials who consider themselves “consistently” or “mostly” conservative at 12 percent versus 57 percent who put themselves in a liberal category; the remainder put themselves in a “mixed” category.

The picture may be a little better for conservatives among Millennials who are actually registered to vote: Pew put that split at 59-32 in favor of Team Blue.  But it also found a gender divide that may impact the Frost strategy.  Some 41 percent of Millennial males tilted Republican, while only 23 percent of Millennial females did so.

For the sake of what I know is a dubious illustration, let’s say that all the Millennial women in counties that went for Kemp are the type of good Christian conservative women Frost has in mind and that the Millennial women in the Abrams counties are all godless Commies.

As the actual math on this works out, the women in the Kemp counties already have a consistently higher birth rate than the ones in the Abrams county; in 2018, the Millennial birth rate in the Kemp counties was 79.8 births per 1,000 women versus 72.7 in the Abrams counties.

The problem is, the Kemp women are badly outnumbered.

In 2018, 647,492 Millennial women in the Kemp counties gave birth to 51,687 babies (who, in this scenario, will all grow up to be good Republican voters).  The 886,215 Millennial women in the Abrams counties delivered 64,453 baby Democrats.

To close that gap of nearly 13,000, Millennial women in the Kemp counties will have to up their game; just matching the Democratic output would require them to raise their annual birth rate to just under 100 births per 1,000 women.  This arithmetic is admittedly (shall we say) speculative, but it seems clear that the good Christian women in Frost’s political fantasies will have their work cut out for them.

Now, it turns out there may be a silver lining for Republicans in all this data.  The same Pew research that found that conservatives had a surplus of men also found that liberals had more women and might not have enough men to go around.  This creates an opportunity for those extra conservative males to try their luck with liberal women (friendly pro tip: leave the MAGA cap in the pick-up).

Of course, such a development might create an entirely new classification problem for the Department of Public Health.  DPH keeps track of all the state’s births and deaths and classifies them in different ways – including ethnicity and race (white, black, multiracial).  If a Republican cross-pollination initiative works, DPH might have to add a political classification – Republican, Democrat, or Multi-partisan.