Georgia Coronavirus Updates: Kemp Orders Shelter-In-Place, Faces Criticism For Comments
Georgia is under a shelter-in-place order from 6 p.m. Friday, April 3, to 11:59 p.m. April 13 as coronavirus continues to sweep the state.
Read the governor's executive order.
Gov. Brian Kemp is also facing national media scrutiny for remarks he made about the delay in issuing the statewide directive.
Meanwhile, more than half of Georgia’s county elections officials share their plans and concerns about conducting the May 19 primary.
As of 7 p.m. Thursday, April 2, there are 5,444 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 142 of Georgia’s 159 counties with 176 reported deaths. Nearly 23,000 tests have been performed by state and commercial labs. The state also says 1,129 people have been hospitalized so far.
Here is the latest coronavirus news from Georgia for Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Kemp faces criticism for "24 hours" comment
Kemp is being lambasted in the national media for a statement made about people being infected with the virus that are asymptomatic. In a question-and-answer session after his speech, the AJC's Greg Bluestein asked Kemp what led to the decision to change course and issue a stay-at-home order.
Kemp said one reason was "finding out that this virus is now transmitting before people see signs" and that people could be infected "before they ever felt bad."
"We didn't know that until the last 24 hours," he said. "And as Dr. Toomey told me, she goes, 'this is a game-changer for us.'"
But politicians and public health officials have discussed the concept of people having coronavirus and not showing symptoms for a while, including Kemp himself, who said in a March 16 order urging nursing homes to restrict visitation because "there is a significant risk that individuals who seem healthy could visit a facility and unintentionally endanger residents."
The Democratic Party of Georgia slammed the governor in a statement, saying Kemp's comments "reveals that he and his administration hadn't been listening to the health officials, including members of the White House coronavirus task force, who have been sharing that information for months."
The governor's office is pointing people to a litany of reasons, including guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated earlier this week on "new information about asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infections."
Here's state public health commissioner Kathleen Toomey's response to a follow-up question about that "24 hours" claim.
"I think we knew... You could tell from the pattern of spread. And we knew from the cruise ships that there's likely asymptomatic transmission. CDC guidance and our own testing patterns were to test those with symptoms. And so all of our epidemiologic models were based on people with symptoms. And I think it's a combination not only of recognizing that there's probably a large number of people out there who are infected, who are asymptomatic, who never would have been recognized under our old models, but also seeing the community transmission that we're seeing and recognizing we now is the time to stop that transmission before the hospitals get overrun."
In a Thursday statement, the Georgia Department of Public Health also addressed the controversy.
"For weeks it has been known that people who were positive for COVID-19 but did not have symptoms likely were able to transmit the virus," a press release reads. "However, on March 30, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield confirmed that new data indicates that as many as 25% of individuals infected with COVID-19 remain asymptomatic. Additionally, science also now informs us that individuals who are symptomatic, are infectious up to 48 hours before symptoms appear. This new information tells the health care community, medical researchers, public health and governments why COVID-19 is spreading so rapidly."
In a widely-shared interview with WABE, Redfield said the newly-confirmed data "helps explain how rapidly this virus continues to spread across the country, because we have asymptomatic transmitters, and we have individuals who are transmitting 48 hours before they become symptomatic."
K-12 schools close through end of school year Kemp has also signed an order keeping public schools closed for the rest of the school year, with K-12 students wrapping up the year online, along with the state’s public colleges and universities.
Adding to the reasoning for the belated drastic measures, he said 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.
Projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show the peak of Georgia’s infections won’t come until the end of April, and the state could run out of hospital bed space in less than two weeks.
"As of this morning, we have 3,520 medical-surgical beds, 450 critical beds, and 1,006 ventilators available in our hospitals across the state,” Kemp said at a Wednesday press conference.
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 163 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.
Elections directors share plans, concerns, fears about May primary
As coronavirus continues to spread in communities across Georgia, elections officials are grappling with the challenge of running a safe, fair and secure election during a pandemic.
GPB News and Georgia News Lab reporters spoke with more than half of the state’s 159 county elections directors who described an extra layer of uncertainty — even fear, in some cases — about preparations for the May 19 primary.
Georgia’s poll workers are typically older, a population with higher risk of serious illness from the virus. Churches, senior centers and other non-government buildings that were slated to open up for Election Day March 24 might be unavailable. Social distancing guidelines that limit public gatherings could hamper a new voting system designed to speed up the process.
“I'll be honest, it is getting a little scary,” Lee County’s elections supervisor said. “At first it's ‘go with the flow and do what you're told,’ social distancing as much as you can and hand washing and all of that. But after a while, it really starts to get to you.”
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 94 positive cases in a population of 28,928, or about 332 cases per 100,000 people. Dougherty’s 29 reported deaths in a population of around 88,000 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 69 cases per 100,000 people and only 2.17 deaths per 100,000.
How Albany emerged as a global COVID-19 hotspot
Speaking of Albany, Blankenship also has a look at how the hotspot came to be.
At first, officials at the hospital didn’t know where the first blush of coronavirus infections came from around the middle of March.
“But we think we've narrowed down what the source was, and it was a funeral,” Smith said.
A pair of funerals in late February, in the days before social distancing was something people were told they needed to do, emptied out two large churches and brought in extended families from across the South and the country.
Phoebe Putney CEO Scott Steiner said the funerals were a perfect opportunity to spread coronavirus.
“A lot of crying, a lot of wiping off noses. A lot of shaking of hands, of hugging, of kissing. Touching microphones being used to celebrate the person that has passed,” Steiner said.
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.
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.”