Georgia’s confirmed coronavirus caseload doubled in just three days to more than 2,000 people infected and 64 deaths, state health officials said Friday.
The surge came as Gov. Brian Kemp defended his decision to refrain from imposing a statewide shelter-in-place order. “I still have arrows in the quiver if you will, if things get worse,” the Republican said in a televised town hall meeting Thursday night.
“You have people saying look, we need to be working. I’m worried about losing my home, I’m worried about getting meals for my kids. And so those are the kinds of things we’re balancing,” Kemp said.
Kemp has left it to Georgia’s city and county leaders to issue a patchwork of local shutdown orders as limited testing shows the outbreak spreading across the state. The Georgia Department of Public Health said COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in more than 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties.
Southwest Georgia continues to suffer at a far greater rate than the state as a whole after the virus spread among well-wishers at funerals in Albany, the Dougherty County seat. On Friday, Dougherty County had least 12 deaths among more than 190 confirmed infections, more than all but Fulton County, which also reported 12 deaths among a caseload topping 300.
Albany Mayor Bo Dorough cautioned Friday that waits of up to 10 days for coronavirus test results means the actual number of infections in his community is likely much higher — he estimated local cases could top 500. The city and Dougherty County have imposed strict ordinances, ordering many businesses to close and residents to stay home as much as possible. Officials said they’re painfully aware of the economic suffering that’s resulted from their efforts to protect lives.
“How hard is it? Our decision is bankrupting people every day,” Chris Cohilas, Dougherty County’s elected chairman, told a news conference Friday. “… We have a responsibility to act no matter what the governor chooses to do or not to do.”
Because testing remains limited as the outbreak grows exponentially, many people moving around their communities may not know they’ve inhaled the virus until well after they’ve infected others. Particularly risky are places where people who aren’t isolating share the air with others, since federal researchers have found the highly contagious virus can live in the air for several hours.
Most infected people experience mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, but a fraction of people suffering more severe illnesses that can require respirators to survive. As as the caseload grows rapidly, hospitals are bracing for a coming wave of patients.
With every intensive-care bed occupied at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, administrators have been scrambling to find more health care workers to run a sister facility across town. On Friday, the Georgia National Guard announced it had dispatched teams with 22 total members — including a doctor, two physician assistants, four nurses and 13 military medics — to assist the Albany hospital’s staff.
The death toll now includes a 49-year-old inmate from nearby Lee State Prison who tested positive for COVID-19 and died Thursday while hospitalized in Albany, the Georgia Department of Corrections said. Five other inmates and four staff members at the same prison also were infected; three were hospitalized while the others recover in isolation, the agency said.
Another inmate has been infected at Phillips State Prison in Buford, northeast of Atlanta, and was placed in medical isolation at the prison. Movement was being restricted at both prisons, but inmates still had access to medical care, showers and hygiene products, the department said.
Local officials have been taking action since the Georgia Municipal Association advised all 538 cities in the state to order curfews from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and close gyms, movie theaters and other businesses. New emergency ordinances in Cartersville and surrounding Bartow County took affect Friday, with violations punishable by $1,000 fines and up to two months in jail.
Kemp has extended public school closures through April 24, shuttered bars and nightclubs, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and ordered those with serious medical conditions as well as anyone exposed to the virus to stay home.
They include a growing number of lawmakers: State Rep. Matthew Gambill, a Cartersville Republican, tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday and is recovering at home, said Kaleb McMichen, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston.
Gambill experienced mild symptoms and has been in self-quarantine since the weekend of March 14, after learning he had been exposed to the virus, McMichen said. The lawmaker did not return to the Capitol for a special session March 16 to address the pandemic. Five members of the state Senate also confirmed they contracted the virus.