A sign outlining safety measures hangs on the door at Leroy Massey Elementary School on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Summerville, Ga. Thursday is the first day of school for over 2,600 students in the Chattooga County Schools system. As other districts around the state delayed their back-to-school days or moved to all-remote learning, Chattooga County school officials are going ahead with its plan to start school Thursday, one of the earliest start days in the nation. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia became the fifth American state to record 200,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, as the state also neared 4,000 deaths from the COVID-19 respiratory illness that the virus causes.

The milestone comes amid signs that the pace of new infections in the current upsurge has slowed, although hospitalizations and deaths remain high.

The resumption of in-person classes at schools and universities could also spark an increase in infections. More Georgia K-12 school districts opened for face-to-face instruction Wednesday, while Mercer University announced that 35 students, including 29 student athletes, have tested positive for the virus before fall classes even begin.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp continues to defend his refusal to follow medical officials' recommendations to order mask wearing and shut down bars. Instead, he has sued Atlanta officials, in part to void a mask order by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Spokesperson Cody Hall on Wednesday reinforced Kemp’s message that voluntary action is enough to tame the outbreak and that the state must focus on both health and jobs.

“Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands, and follow guidance from state public health officials contained in the governor’s executive orders,” Hall wrote in an email. “Together, we will protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians.”

The seven-day rolling average of new confirmed infections was above 3,300 Wednesday, having fallen from a peak of more than 3,700 on July 24. The seven-day rolling share of positive tests fell from more than 15% on July 21 to less than 13% on Tuesday. However, Georgia still has the 10th highest positivity rate among states, according to data tracked by The Associated Press, one marker that the outbreak is not yet under control.

Georgia started recording cases in March, but didn't reach 100,000 cases until July 7. The second 100,000 came in less than a month. The last month has seen hospitals strain the bounds of their capacity, especially for critical care beds, and the number of deaths rise to record levels, as a small fraction of infections have progressed to severe illness and then death. With deaths rising to a total of 3,984 on Wednesday, Georgia has recorded nearly 50 deaths a day in recent days, although some people died earlier and are just now being reported.

Hospitalizations remain high, 87% of the Georgia's critical care beds were occupied Wednesday, and the number of people on ventilators rose again. Not everyone in a critical care bed or on a ventilator is sick with COVID-19. But intensive care units were more than 94% full in five hospital regions, with only two beds available in the area including Athens; only one bed available in the area encompassing Dublin and Vidalia; and only two beds available in the area encompassing Valdosta and Tifton.

Despite that, officials at Valdosta's South Georgia Medical Center told WALB-TV they're not worried about reaching capacity.

“Our staff, we work really hard and find different ways to create that capacity each day," Chief Nursing Officer Randy Smith said Tuesday.

Among Georgia districts that started face-to-face classes for at least some students Wednesday were Bartow County, northwest of Atlanta, and Effingham County, near Savannah.

At Mercer University's main campus in Macon, officials said the 35 students who are positive were tested between Friday and Monday. The university says most students have few or no symptoms and, are being cared for, and will remain in isolation until cleared by the university's medical school. The university says any students living on the Macon campus must be tested before classes start Aug. 18, while other students, faculty and staff must complete a COVID-19 screening survey.


Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak