Georgia Coronavirus Updates: Mixed Messages As Virus Threat Grows

Mar 30, 2020

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources will now begin enforcing social distancing at state parks and on lakes after reports of weekend parties large in scale and close in proximity.

Meanwhile, a Facebook post from a top aide to the governor decried “overreach” by cities and counties ordering tougher restrictions – the very same restrictions Gov. Brian Kemp encouraged local leaders to take.

This type of incongruous messaging has led to further calls for Kemp to issue a statewide edict to keep people indoors as cases of coronavirus continue to spread across the state.

As of 7 p.m. Monday, March 30, there are 3,032 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in over 120 of Georgia’s 159 counties with 102 reported deaths. Over 13,000 tests have been performed by state and commercial labs. The state also says 772 people have been hospitalized so far.

Here is the latest coronavirus news from Georgia for Monday, March 30, 2020.

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.”

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“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.”
 

Kemp aide’s Facebook post sparks controversy

Over the weekend, the AJC reported on a Facebook post made by Tim Fleming, the governor’s chief of staff.

In it, Fleming decried “the media and some in the medical profession” that are “peddling these doomsday models and projections” about COVID-19. Fleming said that has led to local governments “overreacting” to the virus.

But Kemp and Kathleen Toomey, the state’s public health commissioner, have supported the decisions cities and counties have made.

“I’m having to govern the whole state… it’s much different than what [Atlanta] Mayor Bottoms and other local elected officials have done,” Kemp said at a town hall Thursday. “I’m supportive of the actions that they’ve taken.”

In that town hall, the governor’s biggest message was 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 in the hour, Kemp said he was trying to balance the statewide  public health concerns with economic ones in communities without many - or any - cases.

“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.

As for the Facebook post, an article in this morning’s AJC said Fleming was fielding calls from mayors and county commissioners about how confusing the patchwork local orders to shelter in place (or not) have been.

Albany mayor: city in ‘state of concern’

If you measure the impact of coronavirus by cases and deaths per capita, the Albany metro area is one of the worst in the world.

RELATED: MAP: Track Coronavirus By Population Across Georgia

An analysis last week in the New York Times found the Albany metro area – which includes Baker, Dougherty, Lee, Terrell and Worth counties – had more confirmed cases per 1,000 people than everywhere in the U.S. except New York.  At the time, its 10 deaths led the country in deaths per 1,000 people.

But the new numbers are more dire. As of Sunday, there are at least 27 deaths across the five counties, with a rate of 0.18 deaths per 1,000 people. Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, had a rate of 0.23 deaths per 1,000 people. And the Albany metro area has at least 311 positive cases, which means about two out of every thousand people have tested positive for the virus.

Albany Mayor Bo Dorough tells GPB’s Leah Fleming that his city is in a “state of concern” as coronavirus ravages the region. There is a shelter in place order that most people are following, 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 system has reported at least 482 positive cases, 18 deaths and more than 1,200 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 [each time] 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 Gov. Kemp echoed that caution in a call with southwest Georgia officials.

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, 22 people, including 11 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.

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 Sunday, there were 70COVID-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.

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.