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Posts tagged ‘Southwest Georgia’

Covid-19 now hitting rural Georgia harder than urban areas; east-central counties seeing biggest case-rate increases

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.

Revisiting the Gwinnett County-South Georgia comparison (Part I)

I’ve made reference in at least one earlier post to my poor and often meandering research habits.  Well, I’ve done it again.  Recently I started thinking about updating a post I published in December 2016 comparing 56 South Georgia counties to Gwinnett County alone and somehow wound up researching global birth rates.

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 it happens, South Georgia (and no doubt much of rural America) is on the bleeding edge of this global challenge.  Demographers and public health authorities are fretting about “inverted age structures” and suggesting that, as Professor Christopher Murray of the University of Washington told futurism.com, “we’ll have to reorganize societies.”

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. 

“Do it for Dougherty” has a catchy ring to it.

Covid-19 making Sherman-like march to the sea

Having laid waste to southwest Georgia, the Covid-19 virus now appears to be making its way east across a swath of rural counties that largely escaped the virus for the first few months of the pandemic.

Like the Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Covid-19 forces are marching to the sea.

The bug long ago breached I-75 and began blazing a trail across a cluster of roughly 40 largely rural counties in southeast and east-central Georgia on its way to the coast.

It has, in fact, already reached Brunswick and Glynn County, where the infection rate is up more than 1,300 percent since Memorial Day, according to the latest data from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).  On Memorial Day – May 25th – Glynn County reported 87 confirmed cases of Covid-19; on Tuesday, July 7th, that number was up to 1,231.

As usual, with this kind of data, it’s helpful to map it.  For the purposes of this map, I’ve excluded all counties that didn’t have an infection growth rate of at least 100 percent during the May 25-July 7 period.Ga Counties with 100% Increases

Hence the blank area over virtually all of southwest Georgia on this map.  (The shading on this map is intended to illustrate the extent of the increase in a county’s Covid-19 infections; the darker the shade, the bigger the increase from May 25th to July 7th.)

All the missing counties had May 25-July 7 growth rates of less than 100 percent, most of them dramatically under that level.  While those counties – once arguably the worst Covid-19 hotspot in the world – are still adding cases, the pace of that growth has slowed dramatically.

As one example, Albany and Dougherty County, ground zero for the Southwest Georgia outbreak, reported a total of 1,727 confirmed cases on Memorial Day; since then, it’s added 303 new cases, an increase of 17.5 percent that pushed its total to 2,030.

An hour or so to the southeast, Lowndes County reported 249 confirmed cases on Memorial Day; as of Tuesday, it had added 1,410 new cases, for a total of 1,659 and a growth rate for the May 25-July 7 period of 566.3 percent.  Lowndes County may not depose Dougherty as the Covid-19 king of South Georgia, but it has a fair chance of catching it if the current trends continue.

While the 40 or so east-central and southeast Georgia counties highlighted in the map constitute the biggest area of Covid-19 growth, other important sub-regions are being hit as well.  A number border counties showed significant growth during the May 25-July 7 period, including a cluster of counties anchored by Muscogee County on the Alabama line and another group in Georgia’s northwest corner.  Whitfield County, center of the state’s vital carpet industry, posted a 417 percent increase during the six-week period, and four mountain counties that border North Carolina — Fannin, Towns, Union and Rabun — are reporting significant increases.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 20 Covid-19 Update: 420 positive cases in 50 counties

In its Friday update, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported that the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state had jumped to 420 from 297 on Thursday and that the number of counties involved had risen to 50 from 34.

As the map below shows, the virus has continued to spread outward from Metro Atlanta and, just as significantly, in southwest Georgia, where Albany and Dougherty County have emerged as a hot spot.  March 20 Covid-19 Update

On Thursday, the only southwest Georgia counties with confirmed cases, in addition to Dougherty, were Lee, directly to the north, and Early, to the west on the Alabama line.  On Friday, DPH added Miller, Randolph, Terrell, Turner and Worth to that list.  Those eight counties are now home to 54 known Covid-19 victims.

Perhaps oddly, the only area of the state still largely unscathed is a massive stretch of sparsely populated and for the most part poverty-stricken rural counties that run from east central Georgia — in the area roughly between Metro Atlanta and Augusta — down through southeast Georgia.

Laurens County, whose county seat of Dublin is the largest city in that general region, reported its first case on Thursday.  Outside of Dublin and Vidalia, in Toombs County, these counties do not have major healthcare facilities.

Throughout the state, local officials continued to struggle to come to grips with the spread of the virus.  In Albany, Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas asked the county’s residents to shelter-in-place and indicated the county government was moving to enacting an order requiring it.  Across the state, Southeast Georgia Health System suspended most visitation rights at its Brunswick and Camden hospitals.