Georgia’s recent spike in new COVID-19 cases likely indicates the virus is spreading and cannot be solely attributed to a surge in testing, a prominent public health expert said Thursday.

“It’s not ‘either or.’ I think it’s probably both,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, chairman of the global health department at Emory University and the dean overseeing physicians at Grady Memorial Hospital, said during a press conference with Dr. Colleen Kraft, director of Emory’s Clinical Virology Research Laboratory.

More diagnostic testing was certainly turning up more new cases, but the partial end of the state’s shelter-in-place order, allowing most Georgians to move about, is a key reason behind a 26% percent rise in cases between the weeks of May 11 and May 18, Del Rio said.

A Georgia Department of Health spokeswoman emphasized earlier this week that a one-time data dump of results from a commercial lab and a greatly expanded statewide testing system may be behind the increase. New confirmed cases rose from nearly 4,170 confirmed cases to 5,260.

»NEW DASHBOARD: The AJC’s redesigned page of real-time charts tracking the virus

Kraft told reporters it was too early to know the full consequences of reopening. Georgians were hesitant to resume activities at first, she said.

“I don’t think we yet know the implications of sort of being together and people doing their activities together yet. But we will within the next month,” Kraft said.

It can take a week or more for a person to be infected, show symptoms, get tested and receive results.

“This epidemic is not over,” del Rio added. “This epidemic is not over just because a politician is saying it’s safe to get out or we want to reactivate the economy.”

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the the agency continues to monitor coronavirus data closely.

“The Georgia Department of Public Health is working to identify outbreaks or hotspots of COVID-19 in Georgia,” she said. “We are monitoring the number of new cases being reported, and all possible epidemiologic implications of positive test results, including increased testing across the state, testing in long-term care facilities, workplace testing as businesses reopen, and testing among farmworkers. We know that with increased testing the number of positive cases will also increase.”

Nationally, new cases are plateauing. Still, the U.S. passed the 100,000 death mark in recent days, noted del Rio.

“That means by the end of September, by Labor Day, there will be another 100,000 deaths in our country,” he said. “That is a very sobering number.”

Staff Writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report. 

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