ATLANTA — Raising the striking specter of an overwhelmed healthcare system, Emory Healthcare CEO Dr. Jonathan S. Lewin said Wednesday "the universal use of facemasks is a critical component of prevention" as COVID-19 infections surge in Georgia and around the nation.
His warning came the same day Georgia recorded its highest single-day tally of new COVID cases - nearly 3,000, several hundred more than the previous one-day record.
In a morning conference call, Lewin said that his system of hospitals is beginning to feel a strain it hasn't since the earlier peak of the pandemic - and that given the lag between new cases and increased need for hospital resources, things are certain to get worse before they get better.
Current hospitalizations for COVID statewide reached 1,570 on Wednesday, a new high since the Georgia Emergency Management Agency began reporting that figure on May 1.
Dr. Lewin compared the Atlanta area to other metros that have seen recent runaway COVID spread, such as Houston and Phoenix.
"The main concern with seeing our hospital volumes go up like this, just beyond the personal impact that that has on the patients, their families, their loved ones, their neighbors, is the fact that we are on a trajectory like they're seeing in Houston, like they're seeing in Arizona, that brings us in metro Atlanta toward a high concern for overwhelming our health systems yet again," he said.
He added that, "we're not there yet, we have plenty of capacity today," but that after accounting for the lag "we've had such marked increases in the state of Georgia and in the nation in the past week or two, it means that in the next 3-4 weeks we're going to see an even higher surge in our healthcare system."
He said the best, most readily available solution for stopping the current trajectory is requiring facemask.
"We've learned at our own hospital that when we simply strongly encourage facemasks, we still saw community spread. We saw someone would come in and spread it to their colleagues. When we required masks, we saw our infection rates within our workforce plummet to near zero," he said.
Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a leading infectious disease expert at Emory who has been one of the most visible authorities on COVID in Georgia throughout the pandemic, agreed.
"I think the best way to show compassion is actually to wear a mask. If I care, I wear a mask," Dr. Del Rio said. "Science is gonna get us out of this epidemic, but until we have a vaccine we really need society to step up and to change practices, and we have to do it now. Our window is closing, we don't have time to lose."
As Gov. Brian Kemp again expressed resistance to instituting a mask mandate in Georgia on Wednesday, both Lewin and Del Rio said they wanted to avoid making a political issue out of it
"I am not sure that the word is 'mandatory,' could be 'required' or 'strongly required' but let's not get tangled up in semantics and simply ask people to increase mask use," Del Rio wrote on Twitter.
Likewise, Lewin cited a Goldman Sachs study that concluded mask requirements do work to get people to wear them, rather than public pressure.
"The scientific data is places that have mask requirements, whether it's local or beyond, tend to have better compliance. And compliance with universal masking and face coverings has been shown to decrease the transmission. Decreasing the transmission has been shown to help economic recovery work better," he said. "So whatever each locality can do, however we can make things happen to ensure masking, we should be working together as a society to see that happen."
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