Poultry farmer Dempsey Miford walks through his family's chicken house in Cumming, Georgia.
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Poultry farmer Dempsey Miford walks through his family's chicken house in Cumming, Georgia.

Over the weekend Georgia saw its largest spike in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, with experts warning about an alarming rise in the state's poultry and agricultural workers.Over the weekend Georgia saw its largest jump in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began. But just who is getting sick and why? GPB’s Ellen Eldridge tells us about a new partnership that could help answer that question.

The state reported a preliminary number of 1, 334 positive COVID-19 cases for June 15, which tops the previous peak of 949 cases for April 20. While the number could change for that day, experts said, the number of confirmed cases is more likely to rise than decline.

The increase comes weeks after businesses began reopening across the state after the shutdown crippled the economy. The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide is also rising. The World Health Organization reported on Sunday the largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases, with Brazil recording 54,771 cases and the United States tallying the second-highest number of cases at 36,617.

"I think that we clearly are at a critical point in this in this pandemic, not only locally, but globally," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert with Emory University, during a Monday briefing.

Most of the cases in Georgia were reported in and around the metro Atlanta area, but experts said rural communities where people live and work in crowded conditions were most at risk.

Emory University and the Georgia Department of Public Health found the highest per capita rates are showing up in rural parts of the state among agricultural workers, such as poultry processors and migrant crop pickers.

Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist with Emory University, said 25% of those working in poultry plants are testing positive, and other agriculture workers — like those picking crops in South Georgia — are being hit much harder at rates of 70% and higher.

"Staggering rates of positivity in some really high-risk populations," Guest said.

RELATED: Northeast Georgia COVID-19 Hotspot Spurs Action In Poultry Industry, Latino Community

These are front line workers whose jobs are essential.

Safety Fire Commissioner John King previously said while touring parts of Hall County, which is home to a large portion of Georgia’s poultry industry, that these workers are crucial to the economy.

“If those workers don't go to work, America goes hungry,” King said. “They're truly essential members of our of our economy and of our society.”

Emory and the DPH recently partnered to help educate these communities about the importance of wearing masks and getting tested. 

During a Saturday campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklaholma, President Donald Trump told thousands of supporters he had asked U.S. officials to slow down testing for the virus, calling it a “double-edged sword” that led to more cases being discovered.

But del Rio emphasized that an increase in testing for COVID-19 is not bringing about an increase in cases.

"Testing doesn't cause cases; testing simply diagnosis cases," he said.

While testing has increased and more postitive cases are being identified, del Rio said the percentage of deaths are decreasing. That's in part because of the efforts taken to protect vunerable populations like nursing home residents.

The reality is that the pandemic isn't over and people must learn to live with coronavirus, del Rio said. That means using common sense in social distancing from others while outside or on the beach, and using face masks and even face shields.

By educating community leaders in rural parts of the state, Emory hopes to build trust and encourage continued testing.