Georgia refuses to reveal where new virus strain is lurking

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia health officials are refusing to say where in the state they have detected a mutant coronavirus strain from the United Kingdom.
The Department of Public Health refuses to say which cities or counties have had people infected by the new variant, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. That makes it impossible for Georgians to know whether it is spreading in their community.
Georgia has now identified at least six cases of a COVID-19 variant in the state, raising the urgency to get people vaccinated, the newspaper reported. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced late Tuesday the state will get more coronavirus vaccines each week from the federal government.
Georgia’s weekly allotment will rise by nearly 26,000 doses to 145,900 doses, Kemp said. That’s a 16% jump from the current number of 120,000 doses.
The announcement came hours after state officials said they may not see a boost in their weekly vaccine allocation until April.
"Although we still expect demand to far exceed supply for the foreseeable future, this is no doubt welcome news, and we will work around the clock to get these vaccines distributed and safely administered as quickly as possible,” Kemp said in a statement.
On the variant, the state’s health department contends that revealing where it’s been found could lead to discovery of the names of patients, violating their privacy. Several other states, however, are identifying counties or cities where variant cases have been detected.
“It is more than likely that this variant and others are circulating in Georgia just as they are across the country,” public health department spokeswoman Nancy Nydam told the newspaper in an email.
Government transparency advocates say the agency is misusing privacy laws to withhold vital health information. It would be impossible to identify a specific COVID-19 patient based on a city or county alone, they say.
“Basically, I think they are trying to cover their (backsides), to put it bluntly,” said Joe Larsen, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“I think that they are wary of too much public scrutiny on how well they are responding,” he said.
The Texas foundation faced a similar argument when a state commission refused to release the names of nursing home facilities with confirmed COVID-19 cases. The state attorney general ultimately ruled that the information should be released.
Mutations of the virus are emerging quickly, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said a new version first identified in the United Kingdom may become dominant in the U.S. by March. Although it does not cause more severe illness, it spreads much more easily and will therefore lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, according to the CDC.
The current vaccines seem to provide protection against new variants, but health experts warn that the potential for a variant that eludes current vaccines increases the longer it takes to vaccinate people.
Georgia’s vaccine rollout has gotten off to a slow start, but Kemp has said providers are getting better at administering the vaccines. The state has administered just over 746,000 doses as of Tuesday — about 56% of the vaccine it’s received. The best-performing states have used more than 85% of their vaccine doses.
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