Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp waited 30 days since the state’s first COVID-19 case to announce a statewide stay-at-home order, which took effect on April 3. As infections in Georgia approached 5,000 and the death toll passed 150, Kemp stood by and watched. He failed to protect his constituents; by waiting too long to declare a necessary shelter-in-place order, the state’s strained health care system has been pushed to its brink. 

Kemp’s delayed leadership forced local officials across Georgia to fight the virus’ spread on their own. Even as they acted boldly to save their constituents’ lives, Kemp’s own chief of staff criticized city and county leaders for their attempts to limit the fallout from COVID-19, creating widespread confusion and chaos across the state. His lapse in leadership isn’t just appalling — it’s deadly. 

The Trump administration has also hesitated to act comprehensively against COVID-19, belatedly acknowledging the pandemic’s severity and refusing to consider a nationwide lockdown, state and local officials across the U.S. have taken the lead in fighting the virus’s onslaught. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, for example, has earned international acclaim for his early preventative actions against the virus as the first governor to order statewide school closures and the only of four governors to postpone his state’s March 17 presidential primary. His decisive actions, along with those of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other proactive governors, will save lives. 

However, many other state leaders have taken far too long to learn from their peers’ successes, Kemp foremost among them. Although he shut down Georgia’s public schools until at least April 24 on March 26, closed all bars and nightclubs and urged the “medically fragile” to stay home, Kemp initially failed to take the sweeping measures public health experts deemed necessary to slow the spread of the virus. On March 30, roughly 50 mayors across Georgia agreed that a “statewide stay-at-home order and other policies were needed to remedy the inconsistent, confusing patchwork of policies now in place.” This uneven network of regulations and insufficient testing likely allowed the virus to spread unabated for weeks.

In Kemp’s announcement on Wednesday regarding the shelter-in-place order, he claimed to have learned only within the previous 24 hours that people carrying the virus that did not show symptoms could still transmit it to others. If he truly was unaware of that fact, he has shown a willful ignorance of this grave threat to Georgia and the country. The virus’ capacity to spread asymptomatically has been well established since at least Jan. 30 and the international community has known for weeks. Why hasn’t Kemp?

Stay-at-home orders, or lockdowns, are not enacted strictly to stop the virus, and even if they were, we are long past the point of return on that front. Instead, the growing consensus among experts is that they are necessary to “flatten the curve,” or minimize the rate of transmission so that high daily caseloads do not overwhelm hospitals. Stay-at-home orders reduce the rate at which the disease spreads from person to person, thereby decreasing the number of people who need hospitalization at any given time. More available hospital beds, medical equipment and health care professionals mean that fewer patients die in emergency room hallways or in their homes.

Lockdowns don’t merely reduce incidence rates and hospitalizations; they also lower mortality rates. As has happened in Italy, overstrained and under-equipped hospitals led to thousands of avoidable deaths. Italian officials’ failure to take decisive action early in the outbreak likely contributed to their unusually high COVID-19 death toll. While the harsh social distancing measures imposed in recent weeks seem to be working, they cannot make up for lives already lost due to weeks of inaction. 

By vacillating on messaging and initially resisting locking Georgia down, Kemp may well have made the coronavirus outbreak much worse. Hospitals in some parts of Georgia are at capacity, and many others are poised to join them. As of March 26, the city of Albany, Georgia, had the fourth-highest per capita infection rate in the world and Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany has had to convert almost all of its wards to care for COVID-19 patients. 

The Kemp administration argued on March 26 that strict statewide measures would be unnecessarily harsh because around 50 counties still had not reported the number of cases, even though that meant at least two-thirds of the state’s counties had done so. Now, only seven of Georgia’s 159 counties do not have confirmed cases of the virus, and more than 6,000 Georgians have been infected, with more to come. 

Kemp was right to ask for federal emergency aid and to shutter schools, bars and clubs across the state. But the fact remains that Kemp’s previous measures were half-hearted at best and have made him complicit in an explosion of infections. Fever data released this week by smart thermometer manufacturer Kinsa suggest that most of Kemp’s earlier actions largely failed to mitigate the transmission of the virus. Not until areas came under stay-at-home orders did data show appreciable declines in coronavirus-related fevers. The data and the precedent are telling: lockdowns work. By failing to act as the crisis intensified, Kemp has become complicit in the deaths of his own citizens.

Kemp should have prioritized Georgians’ lives and hospitals before worrying about harming the economy or inconveniencing anyone. As the crisis proliferates throughout the U.S., Kemp must continue to heed the advice of health officials and start acting decisively against COVID-19 — something he should have done from the start. The lives of Georgians depend on it.

The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board.

The Editorial Board is composed of Sean Anderson, Brammhi Balarajan, Zach Ball, Devin Bog, Jake Busch, Meredith McKelvey, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, Nick Pernas and Ben Thomas.

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The Editorial Board is the official voice of the Emory Wheel and is editorially separate from the Wheel's board of editors.