Georgia Coronavirus Update: Testing Capacity Grows, But State Still Lags
Gov. Brian Kemp will sign a shelter-in-place order Thursday that runs from Friday through April 13.
He also announced a plan to increase COVID-19 testing capacity by 3,000 samples a day using labs across the University System of Georgia and Emory University. Also, there are growing calls from top Republicans to delay the May 19 primary election as the state begins mailing absentee ballot applications to millions of voters.
As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 1, there are 4,748 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 142 of Georgia’s 159 counties with 154 reported deaths. Over 20,000 tests have been performed by state and commercial labs. The state also says 1,013 people have been hospitalized so far.
Here is the latest coronavirus news from Georgia for Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
Kemp to sign shelter-in-place, K-12 schools close through end of school year
Gov. Brian Kemp will order a statewide stay-at-home order starting Friday until April 13 as the death toll from COVID-19 rises and the projected peak of coronavirus is still weeks away.
In a press conference outside the state Capitol, Kemp also announced a measure dealing with education.
“I will sign an executive order today closing K-12 public schools for the rest of the school year,” he said. “I want to stress that online learning will continue.
Kemp said that modeling and data has "dramatically changed” for Georgia over the past 48 hours, a time when the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 has ballooned.
University labs will boost testing capacity
Kemp announced Tuesday a laboratory surge capacity plan that will utilizes resources in the University System of Georgia, the Georgia Public Health Laboratory and Emory University to ramp up the availability of PCR testing for COVID-19.
"Adequate testing for COVID-19 has continued to be a top priority for the Coronavirus Task Force as we fight this pandemic," Kemp said in a press release. "With this innovative partnership between state government agencies, our world-class research institutions, and private-sector partners, we will be able to dramatically increase testing capacity."
From the release: “A major hurdle in this process has been securing critical reagents, instrumentation, and supplies needed in the PCR process from commercial vendors to ramp up and begin testing. Supply chain volatility has been a barrier to implementation and could continue to put the testing process at risk across the state.”
Once fully operational, the state expects an additional 3,000 samples a day can be processed, cutting down on a reporting time and giving officials a better picture of where the virus has spread. Equipment and supplies are being transferred to Georgia State University, Augusta University, Emory University and the Georgia Public Health Laboratory to operate with minimal disruptions.
Here’s some context: The state public health lab hasn’t performed 3,000 tests in total since the beginning of the pandemic. And overall, Georgia has reported just over 16,000 tests completed, once you add in commercial labs.
So one week of this new ramped-up processing would produce more completed test results in Georgia than the state had in the entire month of March.
Georgia still lags in testing
Georgia is still one of the least-tested states per capita. There have been over a million tests for COVID-19 reported nationwide.
Georgia has tested about 200 people per 100,000 residents for the virus. New York state has tested about more than 1,000 people per 100,000 residents.
To the south, Florida has tested more than 60,000 people and has only reported 77 deaths, and has tested about 280 people per 100,000 residents.
With tests being reserved and rationed for only the most ill or frontline health care workers, it’s still hard to know exactly how widespread the infections are. One effective tool epidemiologists have at mitigating community spread is identifying positive patients and retracing their steps to find other people that might have the virus.
That’s difficult to do if you don’t know you have the virus. Plus the commercial labs that have added capacity are still facing backlogs of up to a week in some cases.
In hard-hit places like Albany, people are dying before their test results can come back.
Death toll barrels past 100
There are at least 125 reported deaths from COVID-19 in Georgia, a somber milestone that will continue to rise. They include eight people who died in southwest Georgia last week before their test results could be confirmed.
More than 1,300 new positive cases were reported in a 24 hour span from Monday to Tuesday, including at least 38 more deaths.
The Georgia Department of Public Health now has demographic statistics about those who have died from the virus, ranging from a 29-year-old woman in Peach County to a 95-year-old man in Baker County.
Local doctor describes trouble getting tested for COVID-19
GPB’s Ellen Eldridge spoke with a 34-year-old local doctor who posted on Facebook about his struggle to get a test, even as a health care worker.
“I was essentially looking for leadership like, OK, how are we as a country going to prioritize who gets tested? Is it just going to be the critically ill patients? Is it going to just be the E.R. and ICU workers or is it going to include primary care and community doctors like me?” Cohen asked himself. “So, I waited for that message.”
Another doctor read Cohen’s Facebook post and chose to share one of three test kits she had for her private practice. Cohen is still waiting on the results.
VISUALIZE: Map of coronavirus infections and deaths
GPB’s Grant Blankenship created a map showing the impact of coronavirus on a per capita level of cases and deaths per 100,000 people in all 159 counties. It shows a magnitude of virus that raw numbers might mask, especially in southwest Georgia.
Lee County has 90 positive cases in a population of 28,928, or about 318 cases per 100,000 people. Dougherty’s 26 reported deaths in a population of around 80,000 translates into about 33 deaths per 100,000 people.
Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous and home to the most raw numbers of cases, has a rate of 65 cases per 100,000 people and only 1.96 deaths per 100,000.
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles Weighs Releasing Inmates
The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will now consider specific cases for clemency for those who are serving for non-violent offenses and also within 180 days of their release, the Department of Corrections announced in a press release Tuesday afternoon.
Atlanta mayor: hospitals could reach capacity by early May
The Atlanta mayor spoke on a public online conference call from her home where she is self-quarantining with her husband and four children.
Hospitals are already nearly full serving thousands of metro Atlantans coming in with diabetes, high blood pressure, car accident injuries, strokes and heart attacks, Bottoms said.
"When you add the coronavirus on top of that, it is extremely challenging to our health care system," she said. "That's what you're seeing reflected in New York and then Seattle, and that's what we are attempting to avoid here in Atlanta."
DNR will enforce social distancing as partiers still pack lakes and parks
Even though coronavirus has touched at least 70% of Georgia’s counties and the majority of cases are in people under 60, pictures emerged over the weekend of floating parties on lakes across the state.
Kemp banned all gatherings of 10 or more people in situations where people can’t keep their social distance, and now DNR Commissioner Mark Williams said his team is enforcing that order on the water and in campgrounds.
“They are monitoring coves where people tend to congregate and, if necessary, using bullhorns to tell people to comply with the order,” he said in a statement. “Officials will approach people in violation of the order and demand compliance for the well-being of our citizens and state. Local officials are also working hard to ensure compliance with local directives, which vary by city and county across our state."
“As we deal with the effects of coronavirus with school and business closures, people are eager for a change in scenery after days at home. They are traveling to nearby counties, heading outdoors for fresh air and maximizing family time. Some are going to vacation homes and others are hitting the lake, hiking trails or campgrounds. We, too, enjoy exploring Georgia, but we urge people to stay mindful of social distancing, follow best practices, and avoid large crowds.”
Virus spreads through correctional system
The Georgia Department of Corrections has released a dashboard with daily updates about how many people have tested positive for coronavirus. As of Monday, March 30, 23 people, including 12 DOC staffers, have tested positive, with the worst outbreak at Lee State Prison.
Seven people incarcerated at the prison have COVID-19, and one man has died.
In the Fulton County Jail System, officials say 13 men are being treated in isolation for the virus.
Trump approves disaster declaration for Georgia
President Trump has approved a federal disaster declaration for Georgia.
"Georgia is grateful for this designation, as it will enable the state to continue partnering with federal agencies in a coordinated fight against this pandemic,” Kemp said in a release. “The presidential declaration is a critical step in providing additional assistance to our state and local governments as they continue to respond to COVID-19.”
Georgia has been under a public health emergency since March 14.
Federal social distancing guidelines extended through end of April
At a news conference Sunday, Trump also said Americans should keep following his 15-day aggressive “stay at home” plan until April 30.
"The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end," Trump said.
It was an abrupt end to two weeks of whiplash as Trump veered between conflicting advice from public health experts, who were looking at data from labs and hospitals, and friends in the business community, who were looking at the harm to the economy.
ICU beds strained
An NPR analysis of data from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice looked at how the nation's 100,000 ICU beds are distributed across the more than 300 markets that make up the country's hospital system.
The national median is about 30 beds per 100,000 people. Most Georgia regions rank in the bottom third of the country.
In both Albany and Atlanta, there are about 24 ICU beds per 100,000 people. Albany has around 50 ICU beds, Atlanta has about 1,500.
But early on in the coronavirus outbreak, both systems are full.
On Monday, there were 69 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia.
Steven Kitchen, the system’s chief medical officer, said last week they continue to treat a “substantial number” of critically ill patients in their ICUs.
“While most people who contract COVID-19 do not suffer serious complications, this is a devastating illness for many higher risk patients who can decompensate quickly and suffer severe respiratory distress,” he said in a statement. “Prevention truly is the key to saving lives for that high-risk population.”
Speaking during the governor’s town hall Thursday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said that ICU capacity in Atlanta was strained even before coronavirus hit.
“We have to remember that Grady [Hospital] is already in a compromised position because of the flood a couple of months ago,” she said. “We have to remember in the midst of this coronavirus, heart attacks don’t stop, car accidents don’t stop, or any number of other things that send people to the ICU.”
Bottoms said Grady was around 90% capacity in the ICU, and projections show ICU capacity could be overrun by May 3.
Measuring the capacity of ICU beds is important, because those are the units that are most likely to treat people with respiratory problems that require ventilators.
Congressional Republicans call for a delay of the May 19 primary
Georgia’s Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last night, joining House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) in calling for the May primary to be moved.
“We are in an unprecedented health emergency in our state and our nation and around the world,” Ralston said in an interview Tuesday. “And until we can assure voters, poll workers and elections officials and those that would need to be at polling places on May 19 that they're going to be in a safe and healthy environment, I don't think it's wise to move forward with the May 19 primary.”
The Congressional delegation letter points out that early voting for the election begins April 27. The president’s social distancing recommendations are in effect until April 30.
“Keeping the status quo unnecessarily exposes Georgia’s poll workers to dangerous health risks and creates the possibility of severely understaffed voting locations if those poll workers follow the guidance of federal, state and local authorities.”
Raffensperger, also a Republican, fired back.
“We have no legal authority to move this election – if you would like to move this election, it will take legislative action or an executive order from the governor,” he said in a statement. “As we have said in a detailed discussions with the House delegation last week, there is a limit to the options available within current law.”
Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office is mailing all 6.9 million active voters in the state an absentee ballot application for the May 19 primary elections.
Voters will need to fill it out and return it to county elections officials, then they will receive their absentee ballot. Georgia postponed its March 24 presidential primary until May amid coronavirus concerns.
It will cost north of $10 million and makes it easier for those anxious about showing up to a busy polling place to cast their ballot safely from home.
“With social distancing as the most important tool for limiting the spread of coronavirus, providing alternatives to voting in person is crucial,” Raffensperger said. “All Georgia voters can request and vote an absentee ballot for any reason.”
Helen's hotels, short-term vacation rentals closed
Commissioners in Helen voted to close the city's hotels, motels and short-term vacation rentals as of April 1 at noon, according to a Facebook post on the city's website Tuesday.
"Helen commissioners also voted to close other tourist-related businesses including amusement centers, horse and carriage rides, outdoor commerical day-use picnic areas," the announcement said. The order does include workers in the Helen area.
Helen commissioners also voted to close other tourist-related businesses including amusement centers, horse and carriage rides, outdoor commerical day-use picnic areas, and “Any and all other businesses not listed as being permitted to remain open.”