ATLANTA — Georgia's largest school district on Tuesday joined the growing ranks of those that will require students and employees to wear masks regardless of vaccination status, as COVID-19 cases continued to skyrocket across the state.
The 177,000-student Gwinnett County school district became the latest to reverse a mask-optional policy, citing new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The facts and recommendations are clear," Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks said in a statement. "Masks do make a difference and we must do all we can to keep students in school, in person."
The Savannah-Chatham and Clarke County school systems also said everyone must wear a mask, while Emory University, the state's largest private university, said all employees must get vaccinated.
The Atlanta-based CDC on Tuesday changed earlier guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas with high transmission. A majority of Georgia counties are in high transmission zones for the first time since March, according to Monday's weekly CDC report. The CDC is also now recommending that everyone in schools wear masks indoors, regardless of community transmission level.
New COVID-19 infections are spiking in Georgia. The state Department of Public Health reported more than 3,700 positive tests on Tuesday. That's more than double the day before and the highest number since late February. The share of positive tests rose to 13% on Tuesday, far above the 5% level that experts say indicate most cases are being detected.
The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals is also rising. The number of confirmed COVID-19 patients statewide crossed 1,500 Tuesday for the first time since early March. The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in and around Savannah and Brunswick is more than 10 times as high as it was a month ago.
The Savannah-Chatham school district had said as recently as Monday that masks would be optional, even as Savannah Mayor Van Johnson imposed a partial mask mandate in the coast's largest city.
The Athens-based Clarke County district had previously taken the position that vaccinated students and employees could go maskless, but that unvaccinated students and employees had to have their faces covered. But Monday, the 12,500-student district announced the shift, saying it was concerned about rising case counts, especially since an employee who took part in the district's leadership retreat became the third staff member to report a positive COVID-19 test in a week.
They join at least five other Georgia districts requiring masks, including DeKalb County, Clayton County, Atlanta, Rockdale County and Decatur. However, most Georgia districts say masks will be optional as children return to class over the next two weeks. That includes Cobb County, the state's second-largest school district. Masks were always optional last year in many districts.
Atlanta's Emory University had already announced that all students would have to be vaccinated against COVID-19. On Tuesday, it told employees they too had to get a shot unless they have "medical reasons or strong personal objections." Employees approved for an exemption will have to be tested weekly for COVID-19. Emory said 85% of faculty, staff and students are already fully vaccinated.
No Georgia public universities are requiring vaccinations, but a number of other private schools are. An increasing number of Georgia hospital systems are also requiring at least employees who interact with patients to get vaccinated.
Georgia remains among the bottom eight states for per-capita vaccination according to CDC data.
Gov. Brian Kemp told WSB-TV Monday that he wants people to get vaccinated and encourages them to talk to their personal physician. But the Republican governor said he opposes mask and vaccine mandates.
"I think people are educated enough on how to deal with COVID. We don't need mandates," Kemp said. "We need to continue to share the data and the facts with them."