Georgia Coronavirus Updates: Reversing Course, Even Trump Slams Kemp’s Reopening Plan
One day after calling Gov. Brian Kemp “a very capable man” who “knows what he’s doing,” President Trump joined the resounding chorus of critics opposed to Georgia’s reopening plan – though he stopped short of asking Kemp to reconsider.
As of 7 p.m. Thursday, April 23, there are more than 21,800 cumulative reported COVID-19 cases in Georgia, and about 19% of those have resulted in hospitalizations. At least 881 people, or 4% of those with confirmed cases, have died. More than 100,000 tests have been performed.
Here is the latest coronavirus news in Georgia for Thursday, April 23, 2020.
Trump: Kemp Reopening Georgia 'Too Soon'
Trump said he told Kemp it was too soon for the state to reopen some businesses later this week that have been closed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking at a Wednesday evening briefing, the president said he disagreed "strongly," but said it was ultimately up to Kemp.
"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities which are in violation of the phase one guidelines for the incredible people of Georgia," he said. "But at the same time, he must do what he thinks is right."
But the public rebuke comes less than 24 hours after the president seemingly endorsed the state's plan. According to CNN, a source familiar with a Tuesday night call between the governor, president and vice president said Trump originally congratulated Kemp for his decision to begin the reopening process.
And at Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing, Trump had glowing words for the governor.
“He’s a very capable man, he knows what he’s doing, he’s done a good job as governor,” Trump said.
So what changed?
Since Kemp announced his order Monday allowing gyms, bowling alleys, barbershops and other businesses completely shuttered since the beginning of the month, local and national headlines have been overwhelmingly negative.
The mayors of Atlanta, Savannah and more took to the airwaves to decry the decision as unsafe and reckless.
Albany mayor Bo Dorough, who leads the town at the epicenter of one of the worst outbreaks in the country, called the decision a “U-turn.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, not exactly a friend of progressive politics, said that he worried Georgia was doing too much, too soon.
Countless business owners have taken to social media and done interviews announcing their intent to stay closed amid safety concerns.
Local Reaction: As Kemp Moves To Reopen, Some Businesses And Churches Hesitate
But the president has said recently that he believed some states could start to open up ahead of May 1, and Kemp cited the White House’s phased plan to reopen the economy as supportive of his plan.
Trump even tweeted calls to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” AND “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” AND “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” last week, egging on protests against lockdowns in Democratic-led states.
But Georgia, a battleground state led by a conservative Republican, is getting a different treatment.
New polling from CBS News show that 63% of Americans are more concerned about coronavirus restrictions being lifted too quickly and worsening the outbreak than with things opening too slowly and the economy getting worse.
Kemp stands by his decision
In a telephone town hall Wednesday with Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), Kemp said Georgia tested a record 6,014 people in one day, and defended his decision.
"I know this is a different world, but we've got to continue to live in it for just a few more weeks, and perhaps a few more months to continue to fight this threat," he said. "But also know that there are a lot of people that are hurting really bad right now on the financial end of things."
After the president's remarks, Kemp issued a statement via Twitter.
"Earlier today, I discussed Georgia's plan to reopen shuttered businesses for limited operations with @POTUS. I appreciate his bold leadership and insight during these difficult times and the framework provided by the White House to safely move states forward. Our next measured step is driven by data and guided by state public health officials. We will continue with this approach to protect the lives - and livelihoods - of all Georgians. Just like the thousands of businesses currently operating throughout Georgia, I am confident that business owners who decide to reopen will adhere to Minimum Basic Operations, which prioritize the health and well-being of employees and customers."
The governor continues to make the argument that “minimum basic operations” is supposed to be for things like payroll and other administrative tasks, and come with a list of 20 or so health, safety and social distancing policies that must happen.
In an interview with Erick Erickson on Tuesday, Kemp said Georgians need to view this as a small step in the right direction.
“This is not just throwing the keys out there to every business in the state and open them back up,” he said. “The stipulations with opening are still out there. Many businesses have been able to operate under those guidelines before yesterday and before this Friday."
The governor also said restaurants can begin in-person dining on Monday, assuming they follow the same protocols.
But the state’s stay-home order runs through April 30, creating mixed messages at best, a greater health risk at worst.
Most business owners aren’t very eager to open back up while COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the state is still ramping up testing and there is no publicly-released data about the virus’ spread by zip code.
Let’s look at the data
Kemp still says his decision is supported by recent data, an about-face from interviews at the end of last week, where he said future data would help determine what steps he would take next.
Consider this: a prominent model used by many governments, the University of Washington’s IMHE projections, has been updated again and make the case that Georgia has not yet seen the peak of coronavirus deaths.
The model also says the earliest Georgia should relax social distancing measures is June 22 – and only if there is adequate testing, contact tracing and still limiting gathering sizes.
But that’s just one aspect.
In regards to testing, Georgia has tested less than 1% of its population since the coronavirus pandemic began, around 95,000 people. That would be like testing every resident of Georgia’s 19 least-populous counties and nobody from the other 140. Or testing one in 10 Fulton County residents and not the rest of the state. Or testing about one and a half people per square mile across all of Georgia.
While the state’s public health lab, the Georgia Guard and private labs are ramping up testing capacity, it is still nowhere close to the level that experts theorize could be necessary to ease restrictions.
Then there’s the actual number of cases and deaths.
The Department of Public Health has built up a number of charts and graphs that are beginning to paint the picture of where the virus has spread and who it has affected, although there are big gaps.
The data website also has a big caveat underneath each graph that acknowledges a reporting lag between what is actually happening on the ground and what gets sent to the state.
A new set of charts showing the “rolling average daily count” of cases and deaths seem to indicate a downward trend in the number of new occurrences by date but is also subject to the lag in reporting.
According to that data, the average number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia has declined since April 14, and average number of deaths has declined since April 8.
That figure is still subject to change, as DPH notes illnesses occurring in that time period may not yet be reported.
The state has not released the underlying data about what dates they assign cases and deaths to, as well as the detailed census block-level data about where cases and deaths have been reported.
Even so, the White House Coronavirus Task Force guidelines recommend a decline in new cases for 14 days, not to mention the ability to do adequate contact tracing and perform adequate testing, things that are not yet in place in Georgia, which could explain the president’s reversal during the Wednesday briefing.
But Kemp argues the state is prepared.
“We’re probably gonna see our cases continue to go up, but we’re a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago,” he said. “We have the hospital bed capacity, we have the community knowledge, we have a lot of things in place now.”
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Fulton County Elections Employee Dies Of COVID-19
An employee in Fulton County’s election office has died from COVID-19 and another was hospitalized, underscoring safety concerns local elections officials face in preparing for the June 9 primary.
Beverly Walker, 62, died April 15 after being hospitalized and put on a ventilator, Fulton Elections Supervisor Richard Barron said. Walker, a registration officer, worked in the division for more than 15 years before retiring in 2012, then returning on a part-time basis.
Walker’s colleague, Registration Chief Ralph Jones Sr., also fell ill and was presumed to be positive for the coronavirus. He was admitted to a hospital where he received oxygen and was discharged the next day, Barron said.
“It’s created quite a bit of sadness in my department,” Barron said of Walker’s passing. “This is pretty real to us.”
Walker’s death and Jones’ illness have personalized the coronavirus pandemic for Barron and his colleagues.
“We’ve kind of asked ourselves, ‘Are we going to be asking the poll workers to do something we wouldn’t do?’” Barron said.
MORE: Georgia Elections Officials Navigate Sea Of Absentee Applications While Polling Places Pull Out
More than 650,000 absentee ballot applications have been processed for Georgia’s June 9 primary so far, overwhelming local officials who already face a shortage of poll workers and polling places.
While the state begins to ease social distancing restrictions to reopen the economy, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is urging Georgians to vote by mail in this election cycle to combat the spread of COVID-19. To help with the process, the state mailed absentee ballot applications to the state’s 6.9 million active registered voters.
As of Tuesday, county election officials had approved more than 650,000 absentee ballot requests, with hundreds of thousands more awaiting processing. With seven weeks remaining until the rescheduled election, applications for absentee ballots already double the number of absentee votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election.
A GPB News/Georgia News lab survey of nearly three-quarters of the state’s 159 elections directors also finds many counties are left with fewer polling places to accomodate in-person voting.
“We have been inundated,” Fayette County Election Supervisor Floyd Jones said. “We've got applications that are coming in by the bucket loads over here and they come in email nonstop.”
A refresher on the state’s new reopening order
Kemp’s order does a number of things, including
- allowing elective medical procedures to resume
- allowing gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, barbershops, hair and nail salons and some other previously-shuttered businesses to open starting Friday April 24 under “minimum basic operations"
- defines “minimum basic operations”
- reiterates no business, nonprofit or government shall allow gatherings of 10 or more people unless they can social distance
- reiterates the long list of “critical infrastructure”
- formalizes a partnership with Augusta University Health System for statewide screening and testing
- allows the Department of Public Health to override local health districts if need be
- prevents city and county governments from enacting rules tougher or more lax than the state
That order still means Georgians should stay home unless they are engaging in essential services (food, groceries, medical supplies, etc.), work in critical infrastructure, engage in minimum basic operations or performing necessary travel.
What’s still closed?
Bars, live music venues and amusement parks are closed for now, while the state continues to monitor COVID-19 data.
CDC helping out with contact tracing
The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is funding 650 health workers at state health departments to supplement more than 600 CDC staff already in place, according to director Dr. Robert Redfield.
Redfield says it's part of an effort to expand the nation's public health workforce. The goal is to ensure every community can do enough testing and contact tracing to prevent any big new outbreaks from occurring.
"As we open up, we need to reset our sights on what the primary strategy is to control this virus and that has got to be containment. And that means we have to have the testing and capacity to contain-contain-contain this virus," he says.
Redfield says the CDC is providing $45 million for these new hires, which include epidemiologists, nurses, microbiologists, lab technicians and others — plus a regional director for each of 10 regions. The funding will cover new positions for up to a year.
Georgia needs the help…
In recent weeks, Georgia expanded the definition of who could be tested for COVID-19, deployed members of the Georgia National Guard to aid with testing sites and announced partnerships with both private companies and research universities in the state to expand woefully inadequate testing capacity.
“Without enough testing, without enough supplies for doctors and nurses, and without listening to medical professionals, the governor’s actions today will make this crisis even worse and put more Georgians at risk,” Democratic Party of Georgia chairwoman and state Sen. Nikema Williams (D-Atlanta) said.
The governor also announced a partnership with Augusta University to promote a free telemedicine screening app that connects symptomatic Georgians and asymptomatic frontline workers with medical professionals that can refer people to be tested for the coronavirus.
RELATED: Augusta Health Begins Testing 3D-Printed Coronavirus Test
Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, said the state is actively identifying additional parts of the state that need more testing sites to be set up. Also, her team is working “aggressively” to ramp up contact tracing investigations to find out where and how someone gets infected as well as who else might be at risk of infection to minimize the spread of disease.