Georgia Coronavirus Updates: At Kemp’s Town Hall, A Plea To Stay Home

Mar 27, 2020

In an unprecedented statewide televised town hall Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp explained his rationale for holding off on a statewide lockdown while urging Georgians to stay at home and follow social distancing guidelines to stop the virus’ spread.

Meanwhile, an outbreak in southwest Georgia is straining the community’s health care system and accounts for 10% of cases and 20% of deaths in the state.

MORE: Albany Mayor Bo Dorough Addresses The Coronavirus Outbreak In Southwest Georgia

As of 7 p.m. Friday, March 27, there are 2,198 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in over 100 of Georgia’s 159 counties with 65 reported deaths. Nearly 10,000 tests have been performed by state and commercial labs. The state also says 607 people have been hospitalized so far, a newly-reported measure of the virus' severity.

Here is the latest coronavirus news from Georgia for Friday, March 27, 2020.

Kemp: ‘Data that we’re seeing is two weeks old’

In a televised hourlong town hall with members of his coronavirus task force, Kemp faced questions from journalists and Georgians about why there is no statewide stay-at-home order.

The governor said his decisions (or lack thereof) have been in consultation with his task force, public health leaders and local elected officials from all corners of Georgia. His biggest message is for people to stay at home if they can, practice social distancing and work to minimize the spread.

“There's a lot of great things going on at the local level, if we can get our citizens to follow these directions,” Kemp said. “It will absolutely turn this curve. We can get to the other side of this virus and it’s critical that we do that for our health care system.”

Later on in the hour, Kemp said he is trying to balance the mounting public health concerns coronavirus has wrought on communities across the state with the economic concerns other communities without many (or any) cases could face with a shutdown order.

“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,’” he said. “And so those are the kind of things that we're balancing… but all of this is to focus on the public health of our citizens.”

At the same time, the governor explained why he ordered public K-12 schools closed through April 24, stating that it would give officials time to figure out where the virus is spreading.

"The data that we're seeing today is two weeks old, the data that we're going to see two weeks from now is what really happened today, and that's just the nature of this,” Kemp said.

Democratic lawmakers, public health officials and frontline healthcare workers have argued that’s precisely the reason for a statewide order.

Also part of the town hall: Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey. Her answers focused on educating Georgians about COVID-19 and the way it spreads.

“I'm less focused on the exact number [of cases], and more focused on how we can get individuals to think about prevention,” she said.

Toomey added that there is data that suggest social distancing is working in some areas that had initially high numbers, like Rome.

She also said that the state is working with the federal government, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and private vendors to ensure there is enough protective equipment for health care workers and those who are ill from the virus.

“We are assessing the needs of the hospitals constantly,” she said. “We have our first of shipment of ventilators coming in to help some of the harder hit areas like Rome and Albany. And we're still keeping track of that.”

House Speaker Ralston supports a statewide lockdown Speaking on GPB’s Political Rewind, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said he supports the state staying at home for a while to severely curb the impact of coronavirus. Cities and counties have deployed patchwork solutions, but Ralston said that fails to account for how mobile people are. “If we have the virus, we're not going to leave it in the driveway when we leave to go to work each day,” he said. ”A crisis like this does not end at the county line or at the city limits. I mean, it truly encompasses the entire state.” Ralston also said the likely havoc coronavirus will wreak on the state’s budget means a proposed teacher pay raise and a proposed tax overhaul and cut will likely be shelved. 

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.

MORE: ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide. See How Your Area Stacks Up

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 Thursday, there were 33 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the Phoebe Putney Health System in southwest Georgia.

Steven Kitchen, the system’s chief medical officer, said 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 on 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.

Albany mayor: city in ‘state of concern’

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough tells GPB’s Leah Fleming that his city is in a “state of concern” as coronavirus ravages southwest Georgia. There is a shelter in place order that most people are following, he said.

“And it could be that people are taking it more serious as we're no longer talking about two deaths… we're talking about as many as 18 deaths,” he said. “The medical professionals are telling us the light at the end of the tunnel will be when Phoebe Putney discharges more patients on a day than they admit. And I don't know how far we are from that point.”

The hospital has reported at least 217 positive cases, 16 deaths and more than 1,300 people awaiting test results. Other regional hospitals have taken in patients to assist the overwhelmed ICUs.

Dorough says that both medical staff and equipment are in short supply.

“Some of the nurses have had to be removed from rotation due to the fact that they have been exposed to the virus or have tested positive,” he said. “To hear the physicians and administrators from Phoebe Putney talk about burning through supplies… these health care professionals have to mask and unmask every between every encounter with these patients, so they're actually going through thousands of masks in pairs of gloves and gowns a day.” 

The virus has and will continue to spread to neighboring counties, Dorough warned, and said Kemp echoed that caution in a call with southwest Georgia officials.

Lag in testing

While the Georgia Department of Public Health reports updated numbers of tests, positives, hospitalizations and deaths twice a day, the real impact of coronavirus is much larger.

A lot of that has to do with a backlog in testing.

The South Central Health District, covering a 10-county area that has at least 9 cases of COVID-19, posted a letter on social media advising people who were tested March 16-19 they are still waiting on results.

“…the testing facility receiving our specimens on the above-mentioned dates is 8-9 days behind in processing COVID-19 specimens,” it read. “This is due to the large volume of specimens they received.”

Only 9,000 or so tests have been performed in Georgia, a state with more than 10 million residents.

MORE: Georgia-Based Waffle House Closes More Than 300 Locations

Georgia will mail absentee ballot applications to all active registered voters
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said Tuesday his office will mail 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.” 

Georgia Unemployment Claims Double Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns
New claims for unemployment in Georgia have more than doubled as businesses shut down amid coronavirus fears, the Georgia Department of Labor reported Thursday.

More than 12,000 people filed for unemployment benefits between March 15 and March 21, up from 5,445 the week before.

But the Georgia Department of Labor is also extending the time you can collect unemployment benefits from 14 weeks to 26 weeks, and also will allow people to earn up to $300 a week working part time while still receiving the full benefits.